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So what and where is Namibia? Well, Namibia is in south-west Africa and was originally called that! It was a German colony until the First World War after which time it was held under South African rule. It was the last African country to gain independance, which it did in 1990. The population of 1.9 million, dwelling in a country that is about twice the size of France, is divided into several ethnic groups.
I went to Namibia in November 2006 with my closest friend and fellow birdwatcher, Frank; and my two other great friends, Kathie and Pat. We four have shared many adventures together. The others had been to Africa before, but I had only been when I was a six-year-old child (to Kenya) and, though I have many memories of that trip, I wouldn't have appreciated it as much then as seeing it all through my adult's eyes some 30 years later! I never thought I'd get another chance to go to Africa, so it was that I went with a thirty-seven year old's eyes but the enthusiasm of that six-year-old.
Frank and I had done quite a bit of research prior to the trip, not least in selecting birding reference materials - we had decided to each take different guides to maximise our scope! Frank selected the Sasol guide and Sasol eGuide for his PDA. He had given me the Newman's guide so I just bought the Robert's eGuide for my PDA. Next came the unexpectedly, extremely complicated business of packing!
The baggage restrictions that came in as a result of 9/11 and subsequent scares - only one item of hand luggage - are quite a hassle for photographers. My excellent Lowepro wheeled photography bag that I have always taken on trips was no longer suitable for hand luggage. No way was I going to put my brand new Canon EOS 1D MkIIN dSLR camera in the hold with all those valuable lenses, or my PSD (photo storage device), PDA, phone, etc., for that matter! So what to do? Easy: buy one of those vest jackets that have all those pockets and bung in them things like PDA, PSD, phone, passport and travel documents, money, drug stash (legitimate drugs like asthma stuff!) and then you only need the one item of hand luggage for camera and lenses. Sorted! Thus, a vest jacket is my rebellion in the face of restricted cabin baggage allowances where the innocent (as in, me and most of us) get penalised for the terrorist actions of the few (woops, a bit of philosophy creeping in there!).
Anyway, I envision a day when vest jackets become the traveller's de rigeur; as in even for women - who seem normally to be way too vain to wear such a potentially bulky item making them look far fatter than they are! Anyway, god forbid the day they bring out a special girly, pink camofluage version. Yep, it is bound to happen. And, what's the betting that, if they do, you'll see some women "sporting" these on safari! If you don't know already, safari-goers should "dress down" by wearing natural colours. Why? Well, apart from looking a right idiot otherwise, one doesn't want to visually shock and upset the wildlife by wearing colours that stand out like a sore thumb. Why? Partly so one can avoid being eaten, and also so one can watch the wildlife without it all running away in horror at the sartorial inelegance of a bunch of idiots in a 4wd!
So, all that aside, the next problem in my packing scenario was trying to get all the equipment I wouldn't be able to take on board (tripod and a crazy amount of cables, battery chargers and adapters) to fit in my hold bag - along with at least some clothes and toiletries! Needless to say, the latter had to take a bit of a back seat so I also took some washing powder so I could re-use my clothes and not have to pack so many therefore! Now I was all set for the off!
Frank and I met up with Pat and Kathie with much excitement at London Gatwick and had a trouble-free, ten-or-so hour flight to Namibia's capital city, Windhoek. Upon disembarking from the flight, Frank and Kathie went through passport control to retrieve our luggage in their haste to get outside and have a cigarette. Next in line, I approached the passport official who seemed to take an inordinate amount of time studying my documents before then, having thus incited my nerves, asking me where I was staying. Being that she organised the trip, Kath had the documents so I had no idea!
Well, I have Asperger's Syndrome (high-functioning autism) and whilst I am supposed to be really bright, this sort of situation turns me into a gibbering idiot. I went into a blind panic, turned puce-red and sweating, and couldn't say a word! So there's a queue of impatient tourists waiting behind us whilst Pat, being a much-travelled and unflappable lady, came to our rescue by explaining that we didn't know where we were staying but that the people that had just gone through did! This was obviously not an acceptable answer, so a good deal of verbal juggling ensued between Officious and Pat whilst I increasingly resembled a cross between a porcupine and a goldfish! Realising something was amiss, Frank and Kath came back to rescue us and, without further ado, we went to collect our luggage.
Luggage retrieved, Pat and Kath went dashing out, nicotine-hungry, through customs. Frank wheeled our trolley through and then interrogation phase two occurred. Try explaining to a Namibian official that you are with two other people who have just gone through and that some of the stuff on your trolley is theirs, not yours! I definitely reverted to being a six-year old at this point, eyebrows nearly touching the ceiling in dismay, but Frank handled it superbly with a sufficient level of appeasing body language that persuaded Officious Lady II to let us through!
We "Formula 1'd" our trolley to the smoker's area and my panic subsided with every exhale of smoke and with every laugh from our friends as we regailed them with the latest "international incident" story (as we call such events - they do seem to happen to us a lot!). We went to find the tour guide, got everything loaded on our coach and then we were off into the unknown - Namibia here we come!
Namibia is divided into four geographic zones: the coastal Namib Desert (after which the country takes its name) that extends nearly 2.000 km along the Atlantic Ocean coast; a north-south mountain chain that rises to around 2,000 metres at the centre; the Kalahari desert in the east which borders Botswana; and wooded highlands in the North. Our tour took us to bits of the first two - you have to remember that Namibia is about twice the size of France, so you can only see the highlights in a week!
So, after a six-hour drive of several hundred kilometres we arrived, tired and hot, to our first destination - the Hammerstein Lodge, located about 65 km from Sossusvlei. We were greeted by drinks and the owner, who informed us not to be alarmed if the four-month old cheetah that wanders around the place says hello! He then went on to say that apart from the tame lynx, and a (tame?) zebra that bites, they have enclosures with leopards and other big cats! Wow! Suddenly I stopped feeling so travel-grumpy.
We were shown to our really lovely, chalet-style rooms. Of course, being "gadget dudes", Frank and my top priority was investigating the plug sockets to ensure our sizeable gadget charging requirements could be met! Having become something of a "gadget dude" herself, Pat had made special plug adapter thingies for us to use because of the South African styled sockets. At some point amidst all this, Frank saw the cheetah through our open door and, stunned, left the room and began to wander over to it taking photos as he went. As Frank neared the fastest land mammal on earth, his body language become increasingly trepidatious as it began to wander towards him, especially when said cheetah began licking its lips, as shown in Frank's photo below!
A mad panic to locate my camera later and I was out there like a shot, for a shot! The cheetah, my favourite species of big cat, was actually lying down purring whilst Frank, with a kind of Cheshire cat grin on his face, was making a fuss of it! It was a really loud purr too, like a domestic cat purring through a microphone. It never occurred to me that big cats purr! So, in a kind of a stupor, I jabbed around for the shutter button in a rather random and frantic way to get some photos. As I knelt down by the beautiful creature, it looked up at me with huge liquid, magical eyes as if to say, "uhoh, another soppy human".
I spent ages interacting with said cheetah and, in between the increasingly noisy purring, it began to lick my hands and arms with its really rough tongue, obviously enjoying my salty sweat more than I had been! Its fur was so soft and sleek and, something I didn't expect when I investigated its huge paws, its claws were not at all sharp - more like those of a dog than a cat! Once we had established enough trust between us, I let it take my hand in its mouth the way such animals do in order to establish a mutual-trust-respect bond (I don't recommend you do this unless you are very savvy and well-read about animal behaviour - I have studied animal ethology for years). Even with its huge teeth, it was so gentle with me. I found myself moved to tears at the experience - I wasn't sure if we'd even see cheetah in Namibia, let alone get to physically interact with one in such a peaceful and lovely way! Here's a couple of Frank's photos of me playing with said cheetah and Pat is there too in the second one:
After Cheetah had decided it had had enough of us soppy humans and had strolled off into the late afternoon sun, we wandered off in search of a pint of beer! I kept shaking my head saying, "I can't believe I've actually interacted with a cheetah" which made everyone laugh because of my, what they call, rather formal terminology. This was definitely a major - if not the major - highlight of the trip for me, and that was only day one of the holiday!
Namibia, along with the rest of this sub-tropical part of the world, experiences two seasons: summer from October to April and winter from May to September. Between January and April, temperatures can reach 40 degrees C and are accompanied by high rainfall. In the winter season, temperatures vary around 23 degrees C. At night during any season, the temperature can drop to zero. Luckily we went to Namibia in November - their early spring - I don't like to imagine how hot where we went on day two - the Namib Desert - would have been in mid summer!
So, our day two doesn't dawn as we have to leave at the crack of sparrow's fart in the morning to drive to Sossusvlei, an area just inside the Namib desert that is infamous for its sand dunes. Everything other than about 07:00 is the middle of the night for me, so the ensuing scramble and rummage around in my holdall to try and get my butt clothed and in gear and my photography kit sorted out when the alarm went off was challenging! Dishivelled and sweating from the panic of trying to get my act together, and with much chivvying from Frank, we nevertheless made it into the main building for an early breakfast. This was significant only in that I discovered what has become my favourite choice of breakfast, the very South African very strong, sweet coffee - and rusks which you dip in the coffee prior to taking a bite! Yum!
Another rusk in hand (to stash as a snack later) and we made it outside to what we called our "tour bus" with a quick visual uptrack en route to tick something else off my "most-wanted" list: the Southern Cross - or the arse-end of it in this case!
We loaded ourselves aboard the unbelievably sturdy (given the roads) coach that was to become our second home for the week; a fifty-seater occupied by only sixteen of us meant we could nicely spread out and occupy a two-seat section each with room to spare - and then we were off to Sossusvlei in the Namib desert!
So, what of the Namib? It was formed about 80 million years ago - making it the world's oldest desert. It is noted for the Sossusvlei sea of sand dunes and the area of dunes and coastline running along the Atlantic coast - the "Skeleton Coast". This desert accommodates the World's fourth largest, and Africa's biggest, National Park - the Namib Naukluft, which extends to 50,000 square km.
Our journey was as ungodly as the hour: long and, once we left what seemed to be Namibia's main road and hit a dual-carriageway dirt track, rather bumpy too: our bodies leapt off the seats like spooked springboks at several points and this meant a lot of panic grabbing of camera gear too!
However, my early morning grumpy-old-woman-pissedoftness faded as we drove through the amazingly diverse Namibian scenery, accompanied by the light gradually changing from that of a full moon gracing an otherwise dark sky, to the faint question of morning. We drove through moonkissed grassy plains, then menacing rocky mountain ranges. Frank's photo below illustrates it nicely.
Some hours later, and around a bend in the road, sand dunes began to grow in the distance as we drove nearer to Sossusvlei. It was as if we were seeing the sand fall from a giant, up-turned egg timer as the bus ate the kilometres up beneath its wheels in its approach to the dunes. Here's Frank's impression of it below.
Then we saw some multi-coloured "things" closer to us moving up into the sky - hot air balloons taking off in the still-early-morning sunlight. They looked magnificent - all brightly striped in different colours making a lovely picture against the bright blue sky and the orangey red and yellow colours of the sands. Of course we stopped for photographs! Check out one of Frank's further below.
First impressions of the desert when we "got there" (you don't really "get" to a desert, there is no "edge" to it exactly, the landscape kind of creeps up on you)? Vast tracts of sand (tip of the hat to Monty Python there). It was my first visit to "an actual desert" and I was almost knocked-over by the visual effect of the dramatically contrasting shades of oranges, reds and browns with greens and yellows, topped off with a cerulean blue icing as the sun came up and made the sky "day".
The oranges, reds and browns that I speak of are the desert and the blue is the sky, but the source of the yellows and greens probably isn't that obvious! Well, the yellow is the colour of the whispy, wafting, long grass that seems to occur everywhere, talking in the breeze at the edges of the desert, perhaps even in the desert - I don't know; we didn't go that far in. That grass was weird: in some lights it looked yellow, at others pale greenish, and even sometimes blue tinted, but it was the same grass nevertheless. The green is the colour of the strange bushes (small acacia-like shrubs) that seemed to be littered about, appearing like an afterthought of flora in a child's painting.
Dune 45. Strange name for a dune I thought; perhaps the result of some kind of hitherto unknown by me taxonomic naming system specific to dunes? I expect the local, colloquial name for this dune, the largest dune in the world, is far more imaginatively stimulating. We arrived there and I have to say I was a bit disappointed. Yes it is "biiiig" and beautifully coloured with a distinct apex giving a stark shadowy contrast on the lee side with a brighter sunkissed colour the other side. But that apex was covered with humans - tourists like us, but fitter! Urrrgh! Hardly makes for good photography if you are just interested in the look of the thing! However, Frank did manage to get a wonderful photo as you can see below, alongside one of the hot air balloons.
We drove on to see another bloody great dune. This time, the tour bus parked up and we made our onward travel to the dune by jeep! This was great fun but I must have looked a sight juggling with my camera and long telephoto lens trying not to let it - or me - go overboard! Luckily, just as my bum started majorly complaining about the bumpy punishment, we arrived - at a huge, dried-up, white and highly-reflective lake-pan surrounded by bushes and eucalyptus-style trees, the backdrop for which was provided by the dune itself as you can see in Frank's photo below.
Whilst not as big as Dune 45, the dune was still fairly immense. Too immense for me to deign to climb, this having been suggested by our sadistic tour leader! I was too hot anyway, and would rather wander around the dried-up pan, and its various scrub and trees around the edges, to do some wildlife photography. However, Frank was game and off he set to walk up the dune, and hopefully down it after. I muttered to myself at various points during my own little tour, whilst keeping an eye on him in case he keeled over in the heat, "he must be mad" - I didn't fancy having to undertake a rescue mission! Kathie and Pat went up some way too, but being sensible souls, they didn't undertake the whole thing!
My own little expedition had gone wonderfully well. The pan at the foot of the dune was quite large with various bits of scrub and trees surrounding it. I couldn't believe the number of different birds I saw, including a close encounter with a Pale Chanting Goshawk who was sat atop one of the trees. I made a huge effort to stalk up to it, taking shots en route, trying to get closer and closer to it. You can imagine I felt rather silly when I got really close to it and it just seemed to look down on me in a rather inquisitive fashion as if it was pondering as to what this weird mammal was doing rustling about in the scrub - it wasn't bothered about my presence at all! Many other creatures were in that area for the photographing: lizards, funny little rodents and some truly bizare-looking insects.
Keeping an eye on Frank who started out as "Frank" but turned into a little dot at the top of the dune, I then noticed him getting larger rather quickly as he decended the dune - apparently he kind of slid down rather quickly hence his rather dramatic increase in size from the dot he had been at the top! The photos he took from the top made me envious - there's one of them below - and I was kind of annoyed that I couldn't boast to people back home that I'd climbed a sand dune in the Namib desert ...which of course is exactly what he did when he got home!
We returned towards Hammerstein and visited Sesriem Canyon, a fascinating sedimentary canyon formed over two million years by being carved out by the Tsauchab river - a river that is only occasionally present it only fills in times of heavy rain and it certainly wasn't there when we were! We arrived back at Hammerstein around lunchtime and were presented with quite a feast! Whilst devouring our lunch I noticed that the zebra, that we'd been told yesterday also lived at Hammerstein, had come up to the the fence some 30 metres away and started talking to us, with that odd noise zebras make, in a way that told me it wanted some attention. So, leaving everyone else eating, I went over to it.
The said Zebra confirmed my belief that it wanted some attention by becoming quite frantic in body language and voice as I approached. I didn't attempt to touch it at first, and just stood talking to it; empathising with it. It gradually calmed down and went completely docile and remained so when I decided to try and stroke it the way a fellow equine would - by scratching it on the withers (obviously other equines nibble a fellow herd member's withers with their teeth, but I wasn't going to do that!). It was quite happy then for me to rub its back and stroke its face - it didn't show one sign of aggression towards me, contrary to what the owner had said was its attitude to humans.
I should say at this point that like most people with Asperger's Syndrome (or indeed, any form of autism) I have an unusual ability to interact with other animals and actually tend to find them easier than people - their body language is much easier to follow. Finding "other animals" easier than people meant that I have studied animal ethology in quite some detail since childhood and have interacted with many species. So, when we had been told that the zebra was aggressive and not to touch it I did take note but wondered why, knowing that it is unusual for a mammal to be aggressive without reason.
During my communing with this beautiful animal, I heard people at the table begin to laugh and Frank came over with an amused look on his face and glancing his eyes toward the zebra's sheath area. Well, I looked in all innocence, and it had its willy hanging right out! Of course, equines do this when they are being submissive or relaxed but I'd forgive people for not knowing this, so the joke was definitely on me "turning a zebra on" that afternoon! I felt so sorry for this creature, I didn't want to leave it there so lonely and sad. Herd animals like that are absolutely not meant to be on their own - it was simply lonely, and that was what was making it grumpy, like a human would be in solitary confinement :-(( So that made me very sad. I wish people thought in terms of the animal's mind and desires, and not in terms of themselves.
After lunch, Frank and I decided to go for a stroll and do some birdwatching. We couldn't believe the number of species we saw - so many in quick succession it was a job to keep up with the tick list! During that wander we passed the big cat enclosures and I got to interact with a leopard! This was rather funny because there are big fences (obviously!) but about two feet from the fence a single wire strand at hip-height. Not thinking about why that strand was there, I went the other side of it to get close to the main fence in order to talk to the leopard who was lying down right next to it. Upon seeing what I was doing, Frank sharply told me to get back - it hadn't occurred to me that said strand of wire was there to stop idiots like me getting too close to leopard and having a claw come through a hole in the main fence rip their face apart!
Anyway, leopard was purring - and talking! Making all sorts of grumbling and loud and somehow plaintive meowing noises - it was lonely in there all on its own - lonesome leopard! I talked to it and it talked back to me. It was an amazing feeling, talking to a leopard. Later on, we got taken on a tour with all the other people to look at these big cats, but it wasn't nearly as special as just being on our own.
After the walk, we were very hot and I decided to have a swim in the pool. At some point, I looked up from my job of luxuriating in the water and saw that the cheetah was coming right over to the edge of the pool! I swam over and it reached out its paw towards me a few times - I wondered if it was actually going to come in at one point! I cupped some water in my hands and it drank several handfulls - it was simply thirsty! It touched heads with me in that affectionate way felids do, almost as if it was thanking me, and then went off to investigate my nearby shoes! It started playing with them!
Frank had, by this time, come over to the poolside to take some photographs of the cheetah and he chucked the shoe into the air. Cheetah obliged by chasing it, and an amazing game of cat-and-shoe ensued! I just couldn't believe any of this was happening: not only interacting, but playing, with a cheetah! It showed not one trace of becoming aggressive and just seemed pleased to have someone to fool about with. Frank got some more stunning photos as you can see from the two below. You can just imagine an advert for the one on the right: "Birkenstock shoes - built to withstand the roughest play".
I was sad to leave Hammerstein. Apart from being a bit dismayed by the zebra being all alone, and worrying about the cheetah not having one of its own kind to interact with, I was most impressed by the place, its facilities and its staff who were all very friendly. The only difficulty was attempting to phone home to let my extremely tolerant husband, Pete, know I was okay - obviously mobiles do not work so far out "in the sticks". There was one payphone, but the queue to use it was quite spectacular. So, if you intend to go to one of these lodges, do be prepared that you won't easily be able to phone home. Anyway, I didn't think anything could top my first two days in Namibia - but there were a few things that came extremely close...
The next day we made the long drive north west to the coastal town of Swakopmund. En route, we stopped at various geologically interesting places, for example: Gaub Pass, Kuiseb Canyon and Moon Valley. You can see Moon Valley in the photo below which Frank naughtily took of me in the foreground doing a "builder's bum" impersonation whilst checking out some of my own photos!
We also stopped at a geographically interesting place: a sign
marking the Tropic of Capricorn "line" which we crossed over as we moved southwards! I noted how, like most areas in Namibia it seems, all these areas were
so arid - parched of even the slightest amount of water. However, you do come across some rather strange plants, like the one in Frank's photo below - some kind
of enormous cactus! And that wasn't the only weird plant we saw...
What of the other weird plant I mentioned above? Well, this was one of the highlights of that trip for me - when we stopped off somewhere in the Namib to go and visit some members of the oldest plant species in the world, Welwitschia mirabilis, some of the ones we saw are said to be about 2,000 years old! I wasn't surprised to find that the plant itself looks really incredibly boring from an aesthetic point of view as you can see from Frank's photos below (you can see our tour bus in the background and no, the circle of rocks aren't to do with the plant itself - I think they are just markers for the guides)! The reason it was something of a highlight for me was simply because of the whole vibe of standing next to, and getting touch, one of the oldest plants in the world.
Whilst we were all standing around admiring the plant, I also learned from the guide one of my favourite ever "supposed" taxonomic names: "Somethingcomplicated sexpicanthis". Now I can't remember the genus (first) bit of the name now, and I am sure I can only remember the species part of it because it had the word "sex" in it, but I have just typed variations of the last bit into Google with no results, so it could have been a wind up! Certainly the guide told me this name, supposedly the name of a bee-looking insect, with some glee and amusement, probably thinking "stupid tourist, I'll wind her up"!
Sometime in the afternoon it was when we arrived at the hotel that we'd be staying at for two nights, the Hotel Strand in Swakopmund. After a hasty sort out of rooms, we went downstairs to enjoy sundowners in the bar that overlooks the sea and ponderered on the very German-looking architecture of the neighbouring buildings: monuments of a bygone era when Namibia was known as "South West Africa" and was colonised by the Germans. The hotel was very pleasant and comfortable - with several restaurants being located nearby, one of which we went to for dinner.
Having spent a late night looking at one another's photos whilst drinking from the bottle of Bailey's that we had bought at the airport (we always do this so we can have a late night tipple!), Frank and I awoke feeling rather jaded. Noting the existence of a kettle and cups in the room, we decided to cha up. However, it wasn't quite as easy as that - we couldn't find out how to fill the kettle for ages! Note to hotels - please make sure that you buy bedroom kettles that are nice and easy for people with hangovers to work out how to use!
After a leisurely breakfast, we were off to nearby Walvis Bay for a cruise to see some of the area's marine and birdlife. That cruise was one of the other highlights of the trip for me.
We arrived at the landing area to find a large catamaran waiting for us. Upon boarding, Frank and I moved towards the bow of the boat and hastily parked ourselves atop a kind of risen solid platform (that joined the two hulls together) knowing that this would afford us the best position for photography. Whilst everyone else was filing on board, we noticed that several pelecans and cormorants were accumulating alongside us, appearing very interested in what we were all up to. We soon found out why: cupboard love - in the shape of the box full of fish that one of the crew opened the lid on! Much aerobatic jostling ensued as the crewman lobbed fish up into the air for the pelecans to catch in their mouths and gulp down in that weird, almost painful-looking, way that pelecans do. We had great fun trying to get photos - the birds were often just too close to us! Also, the weather didn't help - misty, foggy and damp weather is apparently the most common kind of weather they experience in coastal Swokupmond - but here's one of Frank's photos below...
Then, suddenly, we heard the strangest noise behind us - a cross between a dog bark and a pig! Frank and I looked down from our elevated position to see that a sea lion had come aboard and was making its rather ungainly, flippy flappy, way up to the front of the catamaran towards the crewman and the fish! Of course, this was no surprise to the crewman who seemed to thoroughly enjoy the shocked and rather nervous gasps of his captive audience - us humans - and proceeded to hand feed the sea lion with fish, then got us all to join in!
When it was my turn, I couldn't believe how gently the sea lion grasped the fish from my hand given the size of its teeth! It looked up at me with its strange, dead-looking eyes - only dead-looking because they are just a very dark grey and you almost can't see an iris let alone a pupil in them! I decided that its face reminded me very much of the black cocker spaniel that my grandmother once had, which was a kind of a weird thought to occur to one in the midst of feeding a sea lion!
Check out the photos below - the one on the left when it was aboard ship and the one on the right when it had returned to its usual habitat but swam alongside us talking!
During that cruise, we also killer whales and dolphins. At some point a pod was swimming alongisde us and i got down from the platform and lay atop the open mesh joining the two catamaran hulls right up at the bow. The dolphins were swimming underneath and seemed to be thoroughly enjoying themselves - I am certain that some of them looked up and saw us looking down on them. What the crewman didn't warn us about happened next - one of the dolphins suddenly decided to blow through its blow hole - the jet of water came straight up and soaked the faces of all of us who had our noses sticking through the mesh!
That whole cruise was magical enough without food - but then we were told to come to the stern where we saw the most amazing feast was laid out: salad, oysters and all loads of other seefood, fruit - and champagne! They even came up with the most amazing bowl of fruit and vegetable especially for vegetarian me! I didn't have the heart to tell them that I do in fact eat certain seafood becuase they'd evidently gone to so much trouble, so I just surreptitiously had some, making sure first that there would be enough for the non-vegetarians. It was the most amazing trip and we arrived back to the landing point in something of a daze. "How much better could this trip get?" I thought...
In the afternoon was an optional flight above coastal areas of Namibia and especially over the Skeleton Coast. After much persuasion from Frank, I decided to go along too, so the next thing I knew we were driven to somewhere in the town of Swokupmond to book the trip!
The flight with Atlantic Aviation out of Swakopmund took three and a quarter hours and was due to leave at 14:45 that afternoon, so off we went to the small airport. Being a dreadful control freak, I am a very bad passenger of anything: cars, planes - you name it, so I was not looking forward to this. Then I saw the plane: it looked more like a model than a real one, I thought in dismay! When they started talking in terms of who should sit where in the 6 seater (inc pilot) due to weight distribution I got even more scared. However, several trips to the nearby toilet later, and we were attempting to clamber on board: Pat in the front next to the pilot (because she has a pilot#&39;s licence), Frank in the middle area alongside another gentleman, me crammed in the back behind Frank next to another lady.
I was not at all impressed with this arrangement - having Asperger's Syndrome means I have a wide personal space zone so being "crammed" in next to a total stranger was bad enough - and then we started taxiing which was even worse! Now, being a scientist, I know about fluid dynamics (or fluidics) so understand the physics behind how a plane is able to take off and - hopefully - not crash! But all that knowledge goes straight out of the thick glass window the moment I am in a plane! So I grabbed on to Frank's, luckily very broad, shoulders and I am sure I remember beginning to pray (which is saying something, being that I am a devout atheist!).
As we took off and gained altitude, my stomach was left further and further behind - it, being sensible, was back on the ground. At some point I managed to open my eyes, which had been glued shut with embarrased tears of fear, and glanced furtively out of the window. "Ok, that's pretty impressive" I thought as I looked at the stunning topography below and noted its strange and interesting geology. Perhaps you can get some idea from Frank's photos below.
Being in something of a dreamstate meant I hadnt't been listening to the conversation inside the plane and it suddenly banked down sideways! I let out some kind of a strangled noise whilst grabbing hold of Frankt's shoulders even tighter (he had bruises for a while after that trip!). I then heard everyone getting excited because the pilot had spotted some giraffe way down and decided to take a closer look. "Wow, whoopee shit" was what went through my close-to-panic mind - "do I really want to die for the sake of seeing some giraffe from the air?", said giraffes beginning to ga-lope away in that weird way they do.
Next we were again climbing higher in altitude and the scenery below changed quite abruptly to what reminded me of melted chocolate: white and dark mingled in in a bowl together, the colours separate and kind of swirling together in a creamy dance: the dunes alongside the Skeleton Coast. It was quite beautiful despite the (rather typical apparently) misty clouds. Frank's photo below - which I had to underexpose quite dramatically because of the haze and mist, so in reality the scene was not as dark as this - gives you the idea of the chocolate visualisation that I had experienced.
The Skeleton Coast itself, a coastal region shouldered by the Atlantic Ocean to the west and Kaokoveld and Damaraland to the east, is around 16,000 Km2 and is one of Namibia's National Parks. It was named so because of the vast amounts of whale and seal skeletons from the days of whaling, as well as shipwrecks, that litter the area. Beautiful and desolate as it was, I could almost hear the creepy wind acting as a carrier wave for the screams and anguish of the animals, both human and creature; a horror movie location.
We were landing back at the airstrip almost before I knew it, such was my reverie caused by all the visual stimulation, the pilot having allowed Pat to fly the plane on the return flight (as I said earlier, she does hold a pilot's licence!). Was it worth it? I had to conclude the affirmative despite the enjoyment of the flight having been somewhat erratically punctuated by my nerves and the guilt, having landed, about Frank's sore shoulders!
We returned to the Hotel Strand in Swokopmund for a much-needed beer. Having calmed down from the experience, we later went out to the same restaurant to which we had gone the night before, had a huge feast, then returned to the hotel to crash for the night - crash being the operative word since my brain, of course, decided to dream of plane crashes and any other disaster with which it felt fit to torment me!
The next morning dawns to fog and cold dampness, typical Swokopmund weather. A breakfast later and then a very long drive north to the Etosha region via Outjo to stay at Okaukuejo Camp just inside the Etosha National Park. The first thing, apart from the impressive gated entrance (to keep the animals out!) is the strange kind of fort-looking building in the car park! Really nice coz of separate challet bungalows and large grounds with lots of birds.
Upon arrival there, we were shown to the rather strange and very concrete looking, cem-celled, chalets - perfectly comfortable but not nearly as nice as where we stayed the next day. A massive rummage about to find that my lens had got covered with spilled deet insecticide which oes weird stuff to lastic, and we were off to a) grab a beer and b) go to the waterhole.
Okaukuejo's water hole is very near the camp - it even has a kind of grandstand wooden thing next to it so you can sit overlooking the waterhole. The funniest thig that happened was in trying to work out my camera settings for taking night photographs, I completely missed Frank saying "lions" - and by the time he had managed to get my attention, it was too late - they had gone! I still don't hear the end of that one! We also saw a Verreaux Eagle Owl - owls are always exciting to see if you are me - kind of strange night birds - so this was a real treat.
Large colonial style main building with big stone pillars and the most amazing buffet supper! Near to the entrance of it, between it and the pool, a rondarval style bar which was were we hung out when we weren't at the waterhole! The gardens relaly lovely and varous birds like hoopoe and hornbill were quite happy to do their thing whilst us tourists meandered around the camp - usually going between the bar and thewaterhole! A large sociable weavers nest located right next to the waterhole above our heads.
Given its various regions, Namibia has a stunningly diverse collection of wildlife. Various sources I looked up says it has around 134 types of mammals, 620 birds, 70 reptiles, 20,000 insects including some of the World's rarest, 2,400 species of plants and 345 grasses! I am sure we saw a lot of them from the tour bus and during our walks!
We were up very early to hit the tour bus and have an explore around the Ethosha area. I don't remember much about the journey because I had become so exhausted with accumulated stress over the previous few days I sleapt through most of it! I find it very difficult being in a group of people for such extended periods without any space - being crammed together on the tour bus for hours on end, then having to make polite chit chat when all I wanted was quiet to enjoy the scenery and the wildlife, is very stressful for me. Men are easy becasue they don't, in general, talk - or rather, do chit chat. I find non-autistic women very tiring because they are so sociable, unlike me! Trouble is, they think that, being female too, chatting will be fun for me - they don't realise that an Asperger's female is more like a man and only talks when either it is necessary or if she has had too much to drink! I am sure they find me very odd and annoying is how I console myself when I find myself getting to the point of saying potentially disrespectful things like that! So I cuddled myself up in my corner of the tour bus and sleapt.
Frank awoke me when we arrived at our destination - right at the edge of the massive Etosha pan which was all dried up when we were there but would have been full of water and teeming with life in the rainy season. Having got off the tour bus, I was rather awed by it as it stretched as far as my eyes could see right to the horizon. Frank's photo below shows it - the white area - rather well. See how fuzzy the horizon looks in that photo? That's because there was the most impressive heat haze!
We all got back on the bus and were driven right to the pan. This time when we got off the bus, I wandered off a bit to feel the vibe of the place - getting silently annoyed that everyone was chatting rather than appreciating the surroundings. Or at least, perhaps that's their way of appreciating their surroundings but it isn't mine!
The strange hot breeze made me think of tumbleweeds blowing across the wild west in a cowboy movie! But in the pan, there was nothing - absolutely nothing - and I mean as far as noise is concerned also! Dead. Quiet.
I let my mind expand itself and meader over the surroundings. I began to think of scenes from the movie, Star Wars - the fictional planet, Tatooine: a desert planet well known by sci-fi geeks like me as being the birthplace of Luke and Anakin Skywalker. Yes, I half expected to look up and see twin-suns!
Wandering off a bit more, I saw a large bunch of buildings way off on the horizon, a city perhaps. Perhaps it is Mos Eisley, Tatooine's spaceport town, of "You won't find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy" and "these aren't the droids you are looking for" fame. And I began to imagine space ships zooming in to dock...
I came to earth with a crash (you day-dream a lot if you have Asperger's Syndrome like me!) - as often happens when I walk off, people tend to eventually follow me, like sheep to try to envelop me back into the fold I guess, and then will suddenly begin talking to me without any idea that I am actually inside my head and that they might make me jump! I span round to find the guide studying me - he had recognised early on that I am not like other people andm in the way of African people who seem more sensitive than westerners, he tended to kind of let me be. I asked him the question "what are those buildings way over there - it looks like a city", and he replied, "oh that, that is nothing - it is just a mirage".
Wow, my first ever mirage! That was cool - if rather spooky - perhaps they actually filmed some of Star Wars here...
I next took to pondering the large antelope species known as an Oryx and how inhospitable the current Etosha environment seemed for its survival. Also known as a Gemsbok, it is my favourite species of antelope. You can just about make one out in the foreground of Frank's earlier photo but here's a closer one below. The first of the batch of photos that I managed not to lose, this photo shows how beautifully Oryx tone with their environment from an aesthetic point of view: subtle shades of stone and beige with bits of white and black mingled in. A particularly graceful antelope in my opiniom, the Oryx is unusually hardy: it can survive in the desert for several days without water so can cope with the drought times as well as the wet. I found myself wondering if they have the capacity to "look forward" to the rains...then suddenly again my reverie was broken by people calling me back to the tour bus...
In the late afternoon we drove to Halali Camp which is right inside Etosha National park. This was my favourite of the places we visited in Etosha. We were allocated our rooms which weren't - they were lovely bush chalets with thatched rooves and ours had its own lounge and kitchen - very luxurious. There was even a Bar-B-Q outside!
The waterhole is a bit of a trek from the chalets but in my opinion that makes it the best of the places we stayed - less noise of humans from the camp means more animals and that certainly proved to be the case. You sit atop massive boulders kind of piled up at the edge of the waterhole - high enough up to be safe from the animals but low enought for it to feel rather spooky when a rhino comes really close and suddenly turns to stare right up at you because you've not been able to control a sneeze! You definitely need a torch at this camp if you have normal night vision - having Asperger's mean I have unusually good night vision and really like not having a torch as you can see the wonderous African sky and feel the night vibe much better if you don't hae a man-made assistant!
This is the place I lost my glasses. It is alo the place with long tables
The lovely bush chalets with thatched rooves were very comfortable and ours had its own loung and kitchen.
During the daytime around the waterhole, one of the most awesome things is the Red Billed Quelea (Quelea quelea), a type of finch. You may have seen starlings flock in their masses and Quelea, being highly social, are no different. I have tried to capture this in my photos below but it is really transfixing, watching the swirling mass of birds fly and swerve around in perfect harmony.
During the nighttime, photography is obviously much harder - trying to photograph the animals in the darkness without using flash so as not to disturb them means a tripod is a must, so is having a fully open aperture, and so is having IS on your lens! Noted for black rhino, which we did indeed see!
While we were sitting outside for a beer before supper, a red-eyed bulbul (Pycnonotus brunneus) came to say hello - looks very exotic with its red-ringed eye, doesn't it?!
Our last day and night Otjibamba Lodge back on the way to Windhoek just south of Otjiwarongo. My first encounter with a Go-Away bird and also a swallow. Fabulous its own private game ranch with walks.
Giraffe we stood right by it, and an ostrich not far away plus wonderful bird life, like the incredibly tame Southern Pied Babbler (Turdoides bicolor) that I was nearly too close to to photograph!
So if you are thinking of going, check out my favourite web sites below. It is certainly a place to which I would love to get the chance to return.