Ghostriders Under African Skies Adventure 2012

Introduction:

Way back in the 1960s when I was a high school student, I was required to read a book called “Cry the Beloved Country” by Alan Paton. It was reading that book that started a lifelong fascination with the African continent. Over the next 40 years I read many other books about Africa, including the entire series of books by Wilbur Smith. More recently it was the brilliant “Number One Detective Agency” series by Alexander McCall Smith that stirred that interest all over again.

About two years ago I started to seriously look at the possibility of completing a Ghostrider Adventure in this amazing corner of the world. Previous trips had already taken us to China, Nepal, India, Cambodia, Europe and South America but Africa would be an entirely different prospect altogether. Over the next twelve months I searched the Internet for travelling options in Africa and gradually a plan started to take shape. I discussed these ideas with World Expeditions who then worked with their African partners to help turn our dream into a practical reality.

A year ago I asked for expressions of interest from others who would like to join me in this adventure and I was thrilled to find 12 others who were just as keen to share the trip with me. These included Gael & Gerry Driessen who I had known for several years. Gael had already completed our 2008 China ride and the 2009 Nepal Adventure. Gerry had been keen to participate in previous adventures but had been held back by chronic knee problems. By 2011 Gerry had been fitted out with two new knees and a replacement hip and he was ready to make up for lost time.

Noel and Jenny Wolstencroft were also friends who I had known for many years. Noel had already completed our 2007 China Ride and the 2009 Nepal Trek. In addition both Noel and Jenny had completed our first European ride in 2009. For Noel it would be his fourth adventure with the Ghostriders. I already knew they would make great travelling companions.

Rick and Ann Coxhill had both taken part in our 2010 South America Challenge and Rick had completed our 2009 Nepal Trek. For Ann, such trips constitute an even bigger challenge for most others as she is an insulin dependent diabetic. I was thrilled to have the chance to share another trip with them both.

The first time I met Jan Kennedy was when she came to buy some second had furniture from me for sale in her shop. Somehow we started talking about Africa and a few weeks later she contacted me to let me know that she and her partner Vince Carter had decided to join us. This was to be their first Ghostrider trip but I was very confident that they would love every minute of it.

Bob Andrews had been a regular rider with the Ghostriders for many years and had already joined us for the 2010 South America Adventure. Bob is in his early seventies but has more energy and a greater sense of adventure than most men half his age. The only thing he doesn’t have is good hearing and he often goods a lot of good natured teasing about his malfunctioning hearing aids. Since Bob and I were to be travelling as the only single males he would be my roommate for the trip.

We were also to be joined by Glenda Wise who I first met in 2006. Since then she has been a regular participant in our overseas challenges, having completed our 2007 and 2008 China Rides and our 2009 Nepal Trek. The Africa trip would be her fourth Ghostrider Adventure (and she will also be completing our Turkey Adventure later this year as well). Glenda throws herself into every adventure with an uninhibited sense of adventure and no one knows how to shop like she does.

In addition to those above we were to have two others but these had to drop out before departure. Heather Snowden had participated in our 2011 Europe Ride and was very keen to go to Africa however she was inflicted with a very bad back just a few weeks before departure. Helen Minogue was also keen to be a part of our adventure but had to withdraw because of illness in her family. I sincerely hope both Heather and Helen will get their chance sometime in the near future.

Thus our final team consisted of 11 participants. After 12 months of planning and anticipation by our appointed departure time in March 2012 we were all ready and eager to get under way. This is the story of our adventure.

Wednesday 28th March – Emerald, Australia

I stood outside under a completely clear sky and marvelled at the starry display overhead. As I scanned the brilliant band of stars that we know as the Milky Way I could not help but think that the next time I would see the stars would be from African soil. After almost two years of planning and dreaming, our African Adventure was about to get underway. My bags were already packed and waiting by the front door for the trip to Tullamarine and the start of our long journey to Cape Town. I went to bed hoping for a good night’s sleep, but the excitement combined with a thousand random thoughts running around in my head ensured that the anticipated sleep remained elusive and scarce.

Thursday 29th March – The Long Journey Over

Awaking early I began with a final check over my gear. After ensuring that I had my passport, cash, credit card and flight itinerary I decided that the rest was not important and quickly stuffed it all back into my bag. It was hard to concentrate so I decided to just sit and read to pass the time until Noel and Jenny arrived to pick me up. Soon after noon we were finally underway. The first stop was at Rick and Anne’s house to swap to a larger car and share the drive to the long term car park near the airport. From there we caught a minibus to Tullamarine, arriving soon after 4 pm. It had taken over 3 hours so far and we were still in Melbourne.

We were soon joined by the rest of our team and checked our luggage in for the first leg to Perth. This period is always an exciting time with everyone keenly looking forward to the adventure that lies ahead. Once the luggage is checked in you can’t help feeling that you are finally underway. All that remained was to spend a couple of hours drinking coffee and chatting in one of the airport cafes.

Our flight left Melbourne soon after 8 pm and arrived in Perth at around 9.30 pm local time. Here we had to collect our luggage and transfer from the domestic to the international terminal (a 20 minute bus ride away). We quickly cleared customs and, once again, sat down to wait in the departure lounge for our 11.50 pm flight to Johannesburg. It is this interminable airport waiting that I find one of the most frustrating things about long distance travel.

Friday 30th March – Arrival in Africa

Fortunately our South African Airlines took off on time and gave us a smooth and uneventful 10 hour flight to Johannesburg where we arrived just after sunrise. This gave us our first sight of Africa, even if it was just the vast concrete apron of the sprawling airport. We still had to endure a further 2 hour wait and another transfer to the domestic terminal for our flight to Cape Town. By now we were all nearing exhaustion but we were kept waiting a little longer when fog delayed our flight to Cape Town by a further 45 minutes.

Finally we lifted off from Johannesburg and landed in Cape Town at about 10 am local time. We staggered from the plane, collected our luggage and made our way to the exit of the airport. I was relieved to be met by a tall, smiling Africa who introduced himself as “Tickey”. Apparently this was his surname but, as his first name was the somewhat unlikely “Claudius” he quickly explained that he preferred to be referred to simply as Tickey. He also introduced his quiet assistant “Komoyo” and explained that they would be looking after us for our entire time in Africa.

Interior of the Breakwater Hotel in Cape Town – formerly a major prison

Grabbing our bags we followed Tickey to their waiting safari bus which was parked just outside in a 15 minute parking zone. Our luggage was packed while we crawled into our seats. Since the vehicle could hold 16 passengers and we had only 11 in our group we were pleasantly surprised at the amount of space available. The vehicle had very large wheels giving it a high ground clearance. It also had two large freezers at the rear which were used to keep our food and drinks cool during the trip. One thing that the bus did not have was air conditioning, although this certainly would have been welcome later in our trip. As it turned out the other thing the bus did not have was one of the Ghostriders!

Somehow in our walk from the exit to the bus Jenny had become separated from the group and was now nowhere to be found. Search parties were despatched but, after 30 minutes of frantic searching, she was still missing. This was not a promising start to our trip and Tickey was getting concerned that the bus would be towed away at any minute. Just as we were starting to really worry, Jenny was found waiting on the lower level. With a great sense of relief we finally shut the bus door and began the drive from the airport to our hotel in Cape Town.
Along the way we were able to get our first real sights and impressions of Cape Town. Although Cape Town is normally regarded as one of the most prosperous areas of South Africa it still possesses significant areas of shanty towns. Here residents have erected small dwellings made out of any materials they can get their hands on – wood, plastic sheeting, corrugated iron being the most common.

A little further on we got our first sight of the towering Table Mountain which is certainly the most famous feature of this city by the sea. In fact, as viewed from the Atlantic Ocean, you can see that the city is literally sandwiched in between the mountain and the ocean. One of our first goals on this trip was to climb this mountain and view Cape Town from its 1100 metre summit.
Our hotel was situated in the waterfront area, only a short walk from the new Victoria Wharf complex. This is a bustling region, full of shops, restaurants and open air entertainment. The nearby wharf is still a fully operational port and this adds a vibrancy that is so sadly lacking from Melbourne’s Docklands precinct. Over the next few days we came to appreciate just how convenient it was to have a hotel in this area.

After lunch at a waterfront restaurant we finally were taken to our hotel. More correctly we were taken directly to prison! We discovered that the Breakwater Hotel was formerly one of Cape Town’s major prisons but it had now been converted to a hotel and university. We were relieved to find it modern and clean and its location was absolutely perfect. Not only was it only a short walk from the waterfront but it also offered a magnificent view of Table Mountain.

Before checking into our rooms we had a short team briefing with Tickey at which he outlined the way the safari was going to be conducted. By this time we were all sitting with glazed looks on our faces as it had been something like 40 hours since any of us had been asleep in a real bed. Although the natural tendency is to go straight to bed in the middle of the afternoon, this is not a wise thing to do as it only prolongs the period of jet lag. We all decided to tough it out till after dinner and then finally get into our beds at about 8.30 pm.

Saturday 31st March – In Cape Town

Energetic African singers and dancers in Cape Town

After about 9 hours sleep I awoke to a completely clear day. Considering the marathon travelling experience we had just endured over the previous two days it was great to find out that all our participants were feeling so much better. I enjoyed a generous breakfast at a window side table with a panoramic view out to Table Mountain. Because of its location and size Table Mountain is usually covered by a thick cloud known as the “tablecloth”. Not only was the table cloth completely missing but the weather forecast for the next few days was excellent. This was just as well for on the following day we were booked in for a guided climb to the summit of Table Mountain followed by the world’s highest abseil. This was something that I had read about in Australia, but now that the big event was only a day away I must admit that I was starting to wonder if I would have the nerve to go through with it.

When I returned to my room I discovered that I had left the charger for my computer tablet back home in Australia. Although I looked far and wide for a computer store that would sell me a charger without having to buy a whole new tablet, this eventually turned out to be an impossible task and I had to resign myself to the fact that, once it went flat, I would not be able to use it again. This is not a mistake I will ever make again.

Sunday April 1st – To the Top of Table Mountain

We awoke at 6 am to another perfect day with not a single cloud to blot the clear blue sky. The calendar reminded me that it was April Fools’ Day and I could not help starting to have second thoughts about my suggestion that we climb Table Mountain and abseil from its 1100 metre summit. After all there is a perfectly good cable car which could transport us all to the top without any of us even needing to raise a sweat. Why would anyone actually choose to scramble and suffer all the way to the top, especially at our advanced ages ?

In spite of my secret misgivings we all had an early breakfast and caught a taxi to the office of Abseil Africa (the extreme adventure company which advertised the climb and abseil). It was not too encouraging to discover that their office was in a rather dubious part of town, the atmosphere permeated with the strong ammoniacal odour of fresh urine. Apparently the lane served as an unofficial urinal for the numerous homeless people living nearby. I looked up at the sign over their door and noted that the proprietors’ motto was “We always let you down”. Was this some sort of cruel joke, intended to scare away everyone apart from the truly insane? If that wasn’t bad enough I noticed a photo of one of their previous abseil clients with the caption “Dope on a Rope” underneath.

View from about half way up the climb to the summit of Table Mountain

Although we had arrived at the appointed time of 8.30 am (we had been forewarned not to be late), the office doorway was tightly locked and secured by a forbidding steel grate. The place looked deserted. Just when I started to think that we could just forget the whole silly idea and spend the day in a much more sensible pastime, the door opened and we were summoned to our execution. We were introduced to our guide and to the abseil supervisor, neither of whom looked a day over 18. When I asked if it was safe, the only reply I received was a sort of guilty chuckle. After hearing about a near disaster with a bungie jumping enterprise on the Zambezi Gorge a few days earlier, I was wondering whether occupational health and safety were priorities on this continent. The problem was that it was now too late to pull out without losing all credibility and bringing scorn to the Ghostriders’ spirit of adventure.

After a few minutes we were ushered to a waiting taxi for the short drive to the foot of the mountain. Soon we were on the rocky path to the summit. I crooked my neck to look above and the sheer face of the mountain looked a truly formidable challenge. With the sun now beating down on us it did not take long for my sweat to start flowing and my heart to start pumping hard. I found that the hiking route rises steeply and relentlessly all the way to the top. In fact much of the route is a rock scramble over large and uneven steps. This makes it difficult to get any sort of rhythm going.

Our route to the top was via the Platteklip Gorge. This rugged opening in the otherwise sheer face of the mountain provides access to the flat plateau at the summit. The only problem was that, when we looked up, the opening of the gorge looked just so far away. Slowly and steadily we made our way higher and higher. As I turned to look behind us we could see an incredible vista taking shape below. The buildings of Cape Town were diminishing and the incredible expanse of the Atlantic Ocean was opening up as far as the eye could see. It truly was a breathtaking spectacle (that is if you had any breath left to take) and I am sure that none of us will ever forget it.

For one member of our group this climb will be especially memorable. Not so long ago Jerry had two knee replacements and a hip replacement and yet here he was passing many much younger climbers on the way to the summit. This was an incredible personal achievement and also a testimonial to the quality of modern surgical techniques.

Looking down from the summit of Table Mountain out over the Atlantic Ocean

After about 2 hours of climbing interspersed with a few well earned rest stops, we finally emerged at the flat expanse that marks the top of Table Mountain. Unfortunately we had little time to savour our achievement before we were led like lambs to the slaughter for our planned abseil. When the final count was taken, although I had tried to encourage everyone to have a go, it turned out that only three of us were too chicken to say NO to the abseil. I was being joined by Bob and Noel. None of us had ever abseiled before so I guess in one way we would literally be starting at the top. After this act of stupidity, surely nothing else in the future would ever raise the same level of fear and anxiety.

I was soon strapped into a flimsy looking harness and a silly looking helmet that looked like it would offer about as much protection as an ostrich egg on my head. We were then pushed out over the safety rail and coerced onto a tiny ledge at the top of the most terrifying drop I have ever seen. I have experienced vertigo in many places, including the top of the Eiffel Tower, however this was more than three times higher than that and there were no more safety fences. The only thing offering any sort of security was a flimsy looking rope. I reminded the supervisor that I was a big bloke and needed reassuring that the rope was strong enough. He replied that it “probably could take twice my weight” – a very narrow margin for error as far as I was concerned. Maybe I should not have had that second serving of bacon and eggs for breakfast!

Fortunately I had skilfully manoeuvred myself into a position behind Noel and Bob, meaning that I would be the final one to go over the edge. On the other hand, since they were both skinny guys about half my size, the rope would not really be getting a thorough test. I would have liked to have tested it with a small elephant or a piano first, just to make sure.
On the ledge above us we could see the rest of our group looking down and waving to us. I tried to put on a brave face and pretend that I was not terrified. It was just as well they did not know just how dry my throat was or how shaky my knees felt.

After Noel and Bob were thrown over the edge it was my turn. It was too late to turn back now and they always say you should face your fears head on. Well in my case I was facing them with my backside as I was calmly told to walk backwards to the edge and then hang out over the 1000 metre drop. If that was not bad enough they said “Now let go and put your hands in the air” so that they could take a picture for their web site. They had to be joking but they really had me over a barrel (or more accurately a precipice). Deciding that everyone has to die sometime and that falling off Table Mountain would be a pretty memorable way to go I reluctantly let go of the rope. At least I could enjoy a few seconds of feeling like superman before the rapid stop at the bottom.

About to begin the abseil off Table Mountain with 1000 metres of free air below – just as well I was facing the other direction !

With my hands in the air and my face a rictus of terror they took their blessed picture and then told me to walk backwards off the cliff. Sounds easy doesn’t it ? Believe me, it isn’t, especially when the cliff disappears altogether and you are left rotating in space at the end of the rope. At that stage I had no alternative other than to concentrate on what I had been instructed to do and trust that the process would work. Far, far below I could see the miniature buildings of Cape Town and the wide blue expanse of the ocean rotating slowly before my eyes. Somewhere in the background I could just see the highlights of my life also passing before my eyes. It would be impossible to describe accurately the combination of terror, exhilaration, panic and euphoria that flows through your body at times like this.

Looking back towards Cape Town and Table Mountain from the Atlantic Ocean. Our abseil took place from the vertical face at the right had end.

I could not see where I was going but just kept feeding in the rope and continued slowly dropping towards the yawning abyss. At one stage I passed a couple of rock climbers working their way to the summit. With a wave and a forced smile I tried to pretend that I was completely in control of both my rope and my emotions. In fact neither was true.

After what seemed like an eternity but was in fact probably only 5 or 6 minutes I was pulled onto a small ledge by an assistant and informed that somehow I had actually survived the ordeal. Abseil Africa had lived up their motto and had indeed “let me down” – safely. Bob and Noel were waiting to welcome me and we spent a few moments shaking hands and sharing the excitement of the occasion. Now that I was safely on the ground (or more accurately perched on a narrow ledge on the side of the mountain) I began to think of how much easier it would be a second time around. On the other hand there is no point in tempting fate too much and decided it was best to quit while still alive.

Unfortunately our battle was not completely over as we then had to climb along a precarious path quite some distance around the cliff face and then rejoin the main path back up to the summit FOR A SECOND TIME. The combination of emotions had left us quite tired and it actually took quite a lot of effort to rejoin our waiting companions at the summit kiosk. By that time I was so thirsty that I promptly drank a whole litre of Coca Cola, just to replace both my fluid and caffeine levels. We then spent some marvelling at the views from both sides of the mountain before catching the cable car back down to the base.

I have seen some beautiful vistas in my life in the Andes, the Himalayas, Hong Kong Harbour from Victoria Peak, Paris from the Eiffel Tower, etc but I would have to admit that the view from the top of Table Mountain was one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen. Of course we were very fortunate to have crystal clear conditions. When the table cloth descends on to the summit apparently you cannot see a damn thing apart from the inside of the cloud.

Later in the afternoon I returned to our hotel for a shower and to catch up on some laundry before wandering back to Victoria Wharf to watch some free entertainment. In the evening the entire group met for dinner at a seafood restaurant under the stars. It had been a day I will remember for the rest of my life.

Monday 2nd April – Off to Robben Island

The day dawned fine, warm and clear. High above there were a few wispy streamers of light cloud painting the blue African sky. We had the morning free but had booked in for an afternoon ferry ride out to Robben Island. This place was most famous as the island prison where Nelson Mandela was held captive for 27 years during the infamous days of apartheid.

I spent the morning in a fruitless search for a charger for my tablet. Although this gave me an interesting insight into some of the less glamorous parts of the city, it did not result in a successful conclusion. Along the way I did discover just how many people can fit into an 11 seater taxi van (correct answer is 20). At least all of my fellow squashees were polite and cheerful.

At 2 pm I was back at the waterfront and ready for the tour of Robben Island. The island lies about 7 km off the coast and has served as a penal and leper colony at various times in its chequered history. In more recent times it was used to house political prisoners (males and blacks only) who were deemed by the apartheid regime to be enemies of the state. The ferry ride took about 35 minutes and this was followed by an extended tour of the prison, conducted by a former inmate who had been held captive here for 11 years.

The return trip on the ferry gave us a glorious view of Cape Town and Table Mountain. It would be hard to imagine a more impressive approach to any port in the world.

Spartan interior of Nelson Mandela’s Cell at Robben Island

Tuesday 3rd April – To the Cape of Good Hope

Once again the day dawned fine, sunny and warm. We were met at the hotel by Tickey and a replacement assistant who was introduced as Richard. Apparently the assistant we had met previously at the airport had been unexpectedly called home because of a sickness in his family and Richard would now be travelling with us as chief cook and assistant guide. Richard was a 23 year fellow with a keen sense of humour and a quite remarkable hairstyle. I remarked that it looked like he must have been struck by lightning, at which he broke into a roaring belly laugh. This laugh was to become one of the highlights of the trip. (We also learned that Richard was a very talented cook as well).

At 8.30 am we were on our way for a drive along the coastline and down to the Cape of Good Hope. As you leave Cape Town there is a steep and prolonged climb out of the coastal basin. The higher you climb the more impressive the views become. We then descended down the opposite side to the beautiful region of Hout Bay. Hout is apparently the Afrikaans word for wood and this bay was one of the first locations discovered by the Portuguese & Dutch who utilised it as a safe and sheltered harbour, protected on three side by towering mountains. I thought that the region along the Great Ocean Road in Victoria was one of the world’s most beautiful drives but I would have to admit that the road along the Cape would give it strong competition.

We continued further to the Cape of Good Hope, stopping several times along the way to photograph wandering animals, including several types of antelopes, ostriches and baboons. The Cape is one of the best known geographical locations on earth and is marked by a large sign denoting it as the “most south western point of the African continent”. I had pictured it as a wild place with huge waves driving passing ships to their destruction on the rocks, however when we were there it looked like the complete opposite. The oceans were so calm that we could see fishermen out in their small tin boats several hundred metres from the shore. There was almost no wind and the temperature would have been in the high 20s. By the same token, when I looked out over the wide expanse of the ocean and considered that the next land mass was Antarctica, it was not hard to imagine that conditions could probably change very rapidly.

The beautiful region of Hout Bay – between Cape Town and the Cape of Good Hope

We walked along the cliff tops to the Cape Point lighthouse. Although there is a funicular railway to the summit, we decided to walk instead. After our recent climb to the top of Table Mountain, this climb was quite mild by comparison. From the lighthouse at the top you can get an amazing panoramic view of the Cape Peninsula and the oceans disappearing as far as the eye can see. When I am at places like this I make a conscious effort to try to capture the entire experience in my memory bank. While some spend all their time taking dozens of photos, I prefer to physically absorb the feelings that the location gives to me, in the hope that I might be able to better recall them in the years to come.

On our way back to Cape Town we stopped at a place called Boulders to visit a large colony of African penguins. These are sometimes referred to as Jackass penguins because of the strange braying noise they make. I always find it hard to watch these lovely little comical creatures without breaking into a smile.

After a long and event filled day we arrived back at Cape Town a little after 6 pm.

Ghostriders Gathered at the Cape of Good Hope
Part of the large colony of African Penguins at Borders

Wednesday 4th April – Cycling in the Winelands

I was excited to wake to yet another fine and sunny day. Since this was to be the day when we would get on the bikes to ride through the famous Winelands region, we had been hoping for good cycling conditions. It was only when I stepped outside that I realised that the wind was blowing an absolute gale. I could only hope that our cycling route would be downwind and not against it.

AT 8.30 am we were met by a young South African who introduced himself as Kevin. He was from a company called “Day Trippers” who specialise is group adventure cycling. On the rear of his minibus was a trailer loaded with 13 mountain bikes. We drove for about an hour out of Cape Town to an area studded with prosperous looking vineyards and surrounded by imposing mountain ranges, finally stopping at a very picturesque town called Franschhoek. The name means “French Corner” and it was easy to see why. This place really did feel like you were in France. Most of the buildings were constructed in the French provincial style and the restaurants and hotels all carried French sounding names. Originally settled in 1688 by French Huguenot refugees, this is one of the oldest towns in the entire Cape Province. Nowadays it is the sprawling vineyards that the area is most well known for.

The lovely main street of Franschhoek “French Corner”, South Africa

Kevin parked the van and started unloading the bikes. Fortunately the howling wind had settled down somewhat to only a modest gale by this time. I selected a large bike but could not find any other helmet apart from a size SMALL. I somehow managed to squeeze my 10 gallon head into the 2 gallon helmet and tried out the bike. It felt like my cranium was jammed into a vice but I decided to just grin and bear it. On the other hand the bike was quite good, even if the suspension was a little softer than I am used to.

Taking a rest break during our ride of the Winelands Region near Franschhoek

The first leg of our ride was not long but took us through a lovely rural area with glorious mountain views all around us. After about an hour of riding we arrived at the first winery for a wine tasting. For some this was undoubtedly a highlight but for those of us who have no love of wine, I have to admit that each new wine smelt like turpentine and tasted even worse.

Another short ride brought us to the second winery and even more servings of turpentine. After this many tastings we were deemed unfit to get back on the bikes and were driven to the third (and final) round of even more tastings. I think that by 3 o’clock even the keen drinkers in our group were getting rather sick of the wine and were becoming desperate for something to eat. It was only then that Kevin finally unveiled our “picnic lunch” and we were able to get some sustenance into our stomachs. Unfortunately the lunch was not as generous as the wine servings and we were left feeling a little unsatisfied.

After the late lunch we returned to the bus for a detour through the town of Stellenbosch. This is the second oldest town in Cape Province after Cape Town itself and still has numerous classified historic buildings, most with thatched roofs. It is also known as a university town with Stellenbosch University home to some 25,000 students.

It had been a very long day when we finally arrived back at our hotel. Bob and I looked for something simple to eat for dinner and found ourselves at a SUBWAY outlet in the Victoria Wharf complex. The food was good but it was served by two of the surliest and unhappiest shop assistants I have ever dealt with. I felt like reminding them that a smile would have made both them and their customers feel so much better.

Lunch at one of the wineries following our ride

Thursday 5th April – Goodbye to Cape Town

At breakfast I looked out of the window up to Table Mountain. Although it had only been 4 days since we arrived in Cape Town I think we had all grown very fond of that massive rock, especially after we had climbed to its summit. But as pleasant as our stay in Cape Town had been, it was now time to move on and experience the real Africa. We packed our gear and bade farewell to the hotel that had been a very comfortable home for our stay in Cape Town.

The drive north from Cape Town to Springbok was well over 500 km and took us deep into the Namaqualand Region and close to the border with Namibia. On arrival at our campsite we had our first chance to practise setting up the tents. This was made a little more difficult by the fact that we had arrived just before nightfall and had to do most of our unpacking in the dark.

The tents themselves were quite spacious and were hold aloft by a collection of flexible steel poles which had to be linked together in a special sequence. Tickey took special care to warn us not to ever lose one of these metal poles or else we would never be able to erect the tent. After some time wrestling with canvas, poles and pegs Bob and I somehow managed to get our tent looking something like it was supposed to. The only problem was that we had apparently got the tensions wrong and it was almost impossible to close the zipper on the front door. Over the next couple of weeks we did find that we got progressively faster and more proficient at the task of tent erection.

Noel and Jenny trying to figure out how to erect their tent

Already Cape Town and Table Mountain seemed a long way away. It had been a long day in the bus and we were all keen to get some rest. I fought to find some order in the jumble of gear that I had deposited in the tent but one thing was certain – it was far too mild to sleep inside the sleeping bag. Propping my bag behind my head for a pillow and using the sleeping bag for a mattress it did not take long for me to drift off into a comforting sleep.

Friday April 6th – Good Friday in Namibia

After an uneventful first night in the tents we broke camp early and head north to the border crossing into Namibia. The border between South Africa and Namibia is delineated by the Orange River (and it is NOT orange in colour). Although I suspected that the border crossing would be hectic and crowded, in fact it was almost deserted with only a few other people quietly wandering around. We cleared South African immigration quickly and crossed the Orange River into Namibia.

Huge flat topped mesa in Southern Namibia

The facilities on the Namibian side were much less sophisticated with the two immigration officers watched over by a large smiling portrait of the president. Somehow I could not help but think he looked more like a friendly Uncle Remus than the President of Namibia.

Namibia is a huge country with a scant population of only 2 million people. This means that you can drive for long periods of time without sighting either another vehicle (or even another person). It was formally known as South West Africa and was controlled as a de facto fifth province of South Africa. It was not until 1990 that it gained independence, although South Africa retained control of Walvis Bay and its important harbour facilities for a further four years.

Ghostriders enjoying a cool drink in the Canyon Roadhouse at Fish River Canyon

The most dominant geographical feature of the country is the mighty Namib Desert and this is of course what gives the country its name. Although it looks at first to be a desolate and inhospitable place, a closer examination shows that it actually teeming with a wide diversity of animal and plant life that has adapted brilliantly to living in this environment.

Not long after crossing the border we stopped for morning tea at a quiet township with the evocative name of Bethanie. This is one of the oldest settlements in Namibia and was the site of the first missionary activity in 1814 by the Rev Heinrich Schmelen. Although Schmelen became disillusioned and left in 1822 there are still several very large churches in the town that bear testimony to the ardent fervour of the early missionary pioneers.

I stood in the middle of the wide main street and looked in both directions. There was certainly no danger of being run down by the traffic – there wasn’t any. In fact the whole town looked like everyone had just packed up and left. Since the coffee shops of Cape Town were now fading into distant memory we were all feeling like we would sell our souls for a single cupful of caffeine. The only problem was that it did not look like we would have any chance of finding a coffee shop in this ghost town.

After wondering for a short distance I stopped in front of what looked like a hotel. The front edifice was completely uninspiring but I decided to poke my head in the door and see if there was anyone home. I was greeted by a smiling lady who invited me to come inside out of the sun. I followed her through a couple of large dark rooms and to a beautiful open courtyard area. Equipped with many tables and chairs and decorated with collections of cacti and other plants it was a fantastic discovery. What a complete surprise that such a wonderful oasis would be hiding behind such a drab exterior. To me it is these unexpected turns of events that I call the “serendipity of travel”.

Watching the sun set over Fish River Canyon

I returned to the street and called in the rest of the group. We then spent a wonderful 30 minutes or so drinking coffee and chuckling over how unexpected it was to find such a delightful spot.

Late that afternoon we arrived at the famous Fish River Canyon. At 100 km long and up to 27 km wide it is claimed to be the second largest canyon in the world. Its depth is quoted as 550 metres (not quite as deep as the 4000 metres of Colca Canyon in Peru). Down in the base of the canyon we could see the diminutive Fish River which had been responsible for gouging out this great canyon. We walked along the rim of the canyon for a couple of kilometres before gathering to watch the ball of the sun drop below the western rim of the canyon.

Because it was Easter and the therefore the time of the full moon, as soon as the sun disappeared in the west, the full moon rose behind us on the eastern horizon. Gazing at the huge disc of the moon I was reminded yet again of our theme “Under African Skies”.

Our campsite for the night was the Canyon Roadhouse. This turned out to be one of the best campsites of the entire trip. The roadhouse itself had a magnificent collection of old cars, machines, signs and assorted other memorabilia. The ablutions block and toilets were first class. In the middle of the night the moon shone so bright and clear that there was no need of torches to find our way about.

The amazing Fish River Canyon at sunset

Saturday 7th April – To Sossusvlei

Today marked another very long day in the bus, most of it on unsealed and often heavily corrugated roads. Our destination was the famous sand dunes of the Sossusvlei. These are the largest such dunes in the world and their high content of iron gives them a distinctly reddish brown colour.

Ghostriders climbing to the top of a huge sand dune in the Sossusvlei

Just before sunset we stopped near a large dune to get our first experience at climbing such a challenging obstacle. For each step forward you feel as if you are sliding backwards two steps. The sand itself is much finer than beach sand, in fact it resembled the sand in an hour glass. When picked up in the hand it just slips away between your fingers. Although it was a strenuous climb, the view from the top was well worth the effort. With the sun rapidly heading below the horizon the colours of the surrounding flat desert changed rapidly before our eyes. It turned out to be another unforgettable experience.

The day had also given us our best wildlife sightings of the trip so far. Among the animals we had seen were springbok, zebras, ostriches, eagles and many, many more.
After dinner we learned that the next day would begin at 4.15 am! Anyone who was under the impression that this trip was going to be a doddle would have been sadly mistaken. This news was a challenge to those who liked the luxury of sleep but we were assured that the lack of rest would be compensated by one of the absolute highlights of the entire adventure. We staggered off to bed, exhausted but also excited at what the following day would bring.

Sunday 8th April – Easter Sunday and Sunrise Over the Sossusvlei

Saturday evening was bright and clear but quite cold. Once again the full moon shone over our campsite like a second sun. At 4.15am we were up and packing for the day’s activities. By 5 am we left the camp and drove about 45 km to the “dune 45”, so called because it is situated at the 45 km point on the road from Sesriem. The government of Namibia has also given permission for tourists to climb this dune. Its size and location make it a popular spot to watch the sunrise in one of the world’s truly remarkable natural wonders.

Looking down the a dune out to the African savanah

Arriving at the dune just as the eastern skies were beginning to brighten we started to make our way along the dune’s ridge line. With the fine sand and the steep slope it was hard going with each footstep sinking deeply into the sand. I decided to stop at a point a little away from the main group so that I could watch the sunrise in quiet and solitude, knowing full well that this would be the only time that I would privileged to witness this event.

Far below me the colours gradually seeped into the flatlands and I could begin to make out grazing springboks and ostriches enjoying the cool stillness of the pre dawn. Occasions like this are more than just a tourist attraction, in a very real sense they can be a type of spiritual awakening –flooding your soul with a sense of wonder, peace and well being.

After the sun had risen I resumed the climb to the very top of the dune and joined some of the others from our group. It was then that we decided it would be fun to run down the steep side of the dune, all the way to the bottom. And we were right –it really was FUN!

Down we ran, hooping and hollering with childish delight at the sheer exhilaration of the experience. Our descent was combination of leaps, slides and hops and I noticed that each person adopted their own unique style of locomotion.

We then made our way back to the bus where Richard was waiting for us with a delicious breakfast. After breakfast we drove a short distance to a remote location for a 5 km desert walk. In the middle of the day temperatures here can easily soar to over 50C so I was glad the sun was still relatively low in the sky. With hats and sunscreen for protection we headed off with Tickey leading the way and pointing out numerous examples of desert adaptation. The ground underfoot was white on the surface but a deep red brown underneath wherever the thin surface crust was disturbed. For some of the way we were even followed by a curious ostrich.

After about 2 hours we reached a flat salt pan known as the Deadvlei. This pan was once filled with water but has now dried out to leave a white flat expanse, dotted with the preserved remains of long dead trees (some over 500 years old). It was an eerie place and by that time we were all getting far too hot and dry to stay for long.

The desert salt pan known as the Deadvlei – the dead trees are over 500 years old

We made our way back to a 4×4 parking area and caught a ride on a specially adapted 4WD vehicle for a rough and exciting drive back to our bus. An hour later we were back at our campsite. Tickey broke the news to us that in the evening we would be having dinner in one of the finest resorts in Namibia – The Sossusvlei Lodge. That was a pleasant surprise but at the time we did not know exactly what to expect.

Our wonderful accomodation at Sossusvlei Lodge

After breaking camp we loaded the bus and drove a short distance to the Lodge to make our dinner reservations. It soon became evident why it costs over $US400 a night for a room here. That was way out of our budget but we got another pleasant surprise when we were driven to the Sossusvlei Lodge Camp Ground. This was no ordinary camp ground as it consisted of a neat row of permanent tented lodges, each with its own ensuite toilet and bathroom, kitchenette and outside table with a view out to the desert and the distant mountains. Now that is the sort of camping that I could easily get used to. All in all it was a camping heaven.

Sunset at Sossusvlei Lodge Camp

Bob and I sat at our outside table and watched the springboks grazing lazily in the late afternoon sunshine. I was also able to utilise the hot water and large sink to catch up with my laundry, knowing the warm desert wind would ensure that it would dry quickly. I am sure that all our team will look back on this location as another of the high points of the trip.
At 6.30 pm I donned my finest shorts and sandals and climbed back on the bus for the short drive back to the Lodge for our desert dinner. By this time the sun had set and the moon was just beginning to rise in the east. The atmosphere at the dinner certainly lived up to the price tag. The tables were all elegantly dressed with an impressive array of silverware and adorned with dozens of candles twinkling silently in the African night.

The meal itself was served buffet style with dozens of options available for the adventurous eater. For the main course we could choose from a selection of a dozen or so game meats (anything from warthog to ostrich) and then have it barbecued to your satisfaction while you watched. I chose impala although I don’t think I even knew what an impala was. Whatever it was, it turned out to be lean and tender although I did feel rather guilty for eating it.

I thought that the only thing lacking for this magnificent banquet was some live entertainment. It would have been a great opportunity to feature some African music and dancers but apparently they had never thought of it.

Monday April 9th – Easter Monday – 365 km in the bus

I got up early to watch the sunrise over Sesriem and the grasslands. There was absolutely no wind and, when the sunshine washed overhead, it revealed another cloudless sky. After packing our bags we returned to the Sossusvlei Lodge for a buffet breakfast before setting off another long day in the bus. The roads in this region are wide, unsealed and corrugated – all making for a rattling time in the bus.

The roadhouse at Solitaire

Our morning tea stop was at a wonderful outpost with the evocative name of Solitaire. It really was an amazing place, just like an oasis in the middle of a huge desert. The area surrounding the central building was decorated with the remains of numerous old cars and tractors. Outside the front door was a blackboard detailing the rainfall figures for the past three years. It was worth noting that this appears to be increasing and in 2011 it was a surprising 471mm. No wonder that the desert seemed to be bursting with new life.

The outpost had good, clean toilets and a rotund and jovial Afrikaaner baker. When I told him he looked like he enjoyed the fruits of his labour, he quickly replied that he had actually lost 40 kg in weight. Apparently he had been a body builder on a regular diet of steroids but had now retired and no longer ate sugar. I guess this would be hard to do when you had the reputation of producing the best apple cake in Namibia.

Our bumping in the bus continued for about another hour until we came across a family from France whose hired Range Rover had broken down in the desert. We were able to assist them contact the car supplier in Swakopmund who promised to send a repair crew to help them out.

Ghostriders going a little crazy in the strong African sun

As we travelled further and further north the nature of the landscape changed from rocks and sand to much greener flat fields – surprisingly green in fact. This is certainly a demonstration of the incredible life giving power of water.

Lunch was held in the shade of a solitary tree by the side of the road. The noon day sun in this region was hot and scorching and we were grateful of any shade we could find. I think we were all looking forward to reaching the Atlantic coast and the prospect of more temperate conditions.

Glenda at the Tropic of Capricorn

After heading north for many kilometres the road swings to the west in the final 100 km to Walvis Bay on the Atlantic Coast. This township of 25,000 people is like an oasis in a vast desert and reminded me of Dubai. Although a kilometre out of town there is not a blade of grass to be seen, within the space of a few hundred metres you enter a verdant expanse of green manicured lawns and the relentless click-clack of dozens of garden sprinklers.

Oppulent ocean front mansions at Walvis Bay, Namibia

On the actual waterfront there is a row of huge new mansions that indicate that at least some of the population is prospering. The bus pulled in at the beach front and we stepped out onto the waterfront walking path to savour the cool and refreshing ocean breeze. Jan called out “Did you see that ?” and pointed out to the ocean. At first we had no idea what she was talking about, but then we noticed dozens of large dark fish leaping out of the water a metre or more into the air. It was the first time I had ever witnessed such a spectacle and it certainly became my most vivid memory of this place. In spite of the leaping fish there was not a single fisherman to be seen, in fact the entire town seemed deserted. Perhaps this was because it was Easter Monday and everyone had stayed home in bed for the day.

Walvis Bay has the deepest port in Southern Africa and is a very strategic shipping centre. That is why South Africa refused to hand over ownership of this area until 1994 when Nelson Mandela became president and finally gave the port to the Namibian people. Further back in its history Walvis Bay was a British protectorate and you can still see ample evidence of this in its architecture and street names. On the other hand Swakopmund, a bare 30 km further north, has an overriding German feel.

Swakopmund is a similar sized town to Walvis Bay and is regarded as the adventure capital of Namibia because of the wide variety of adventure activities you can arrange from here, anything from quad biking to parachuting. We quickly developed a fondness for Swakopmund because of its comfortable climate, waterfront location, broad clean streets and wonderful restaurants. The entire waterfront area is landscaped with beautiful gardens and palm trees.

Unfortunately our hotel room at the Dunedin Guesthouse was tiny and the hot water was not working for the entire time we were there. When we complained to the manager all we were told was some story about “a problem with the geyser”. This had us scratching our heads, but I assume it meant some sort of valve. Whatever the problem was, it was obviously too difficult for them to fix and so we suffered under freezing showers for two whole days. On the other hand, the very pleasant atmosphere of the town helped to make up for these hardships. On the first night of our stay we all enjoyed a wonderful seafood dinner at the Ocean Basket restaurant. It was one of the best dinners of the entire trip.

Tuesday 10th April – Free Day in Swakopmund

Handicraft Market in Swakopmund

After the hectic and relentless pace of the previous few days it was a good feeling to have a free day to just chill out, catch up on diary writing, explore the town and do a little shopping. I left the hotel and wondered through the town down to the waterfront area and engaged in some light hearted banter with a couple of eager spruikers at the craft market. Most of these guys speak excellent English and were very friendly, although obviously very keen to convince me that their stuff was worth buying.

Due to the combination of closeness to the ocean, well organised street layout, manicured gardens, wonderful restaurants and a very mild climate, Swakopmund proved a very popular place with our group. The only disappointment was the Dunedin Guesthouse. Apart from the lack of hot water the bathroom was cramped, windowless and damp and the electricity was inclined to turn itself off and on again at random intervals. I would strongly advise other travellers to Swakopmund to give this place a wide berth and look elsewhere.

For dinner we believed we had a group booking at the TUG Restaurant. This is a large converted tug boat perched right on the Atlantic Coast at the base of the pier. It has a reputation for fine food and an atmosphere that would be hard to match anywhere in the world.

Our problem was that when we arrived at the restaurant the receptionist told us that the booking had accidentally been written into the book for the previous evening! In spite of this they still found us two large tables right up in the wheelhouse. We arrived just after sunset and could watch the enormous breaking waves crashing into the rocks just below us. It was easy to feel that we were on the edge of an enormous ocean, in fact if we continued westwards the next landmass we would encounter would be the east coast of South America.

Quiet and clean Main Street of Swakopmund

The meal itself was indeed delicious and actually not as expensive as we feared it might have been. When we emerged at the end of the meal we found that the evening was fine and clear. The sky above was ablaze with starlight and made a wonderful counterpoint to the huge waves beneath our feet. We decided to walk out to the end of the long pier and get a closer look at the ocean. I cannot recall a more impressive pier anywhere. As we walked further and further out you could feel the immense power of the waves as they crashed against the pylons under our feet. The lights of Swakopmund gradually retreated into the distance behind us as we walked towards the large Japanese sushi restaurant which is perched right at the end of the pier. We felt a little cheeky and decided to gatecrash the restaurant to see what it was like inside. There we found that sections of the floor had been replaced with large transparent panels allowing the patrons to see the floodlit roaring ocean literally right under their feet.

It had been a remarkable evening and we were all in high spirits as we strolled slowly back through the town to our hotel. It was a perfect was to end our brief interlude in Swakopmund before heading back out into the wilderness of Spitzkoppe and Etosha National Park.

Wednesday 11th April – To Spitzkoppe

Within a kilometre of leaving Swakopmund we were back in the desert. Without the moderating effect of the ocean the temperature quickly soars and it is easy to see why the region just north of here is referred to as the “Skeleton Coast”. This country really can be wild and unforgiving. The only difference between life and death is access to drinking water. I wondered where all the water to maintain Swakopmund’s green gardens comes from and was told that it is piped in from underground aquifers many kilometres from the city, but apparently there are also plans to build a desalination plant.

Our first sight of Spitzkoppe – 1700 m high granite outcrop

During the day we travelled many kilometres over unsealed and badly corrugated roads until we finally gained our first views of Spitzkoppe. This is a stark granite outcrop, dramatically soaring some 1700 m above sea level. The surrounding desert was dotted with numerous huge termite mounds and small scraps of vegetation giving it a strange otherworldly appearance.

Tickey (our guide) standing beside a huge termite mound

 

Pulling ourselves up to the top of Spitzkoppe

With the sun rapidly setting we reached our campsite and rapidly set up the tents. Unlike previous sites, this site really was a rough affair but the incredible surroundings made up for the lack of facilities. We were introduced to our guide and set off on a brisk walk to the top of one of the rocky outcrops. The climb was steep and only achieved with the aid of a thick chain anchored to the rock face by steel posts every 5 metres or so.

At the top there are some fine examples of ancient rock paintings, some dating back thousands of years. We then climbed further up to a large cave in the side of the rocks while our guide danced and sang for us in some of the local Damara language. With the sun now rapidly disappearing behind the rock we watched spellbound as he clicked and danced, all the while precariously located on an elevated rock which he referred to as his “stage”. In the tropics darkness falls swiftly and soon I became a little concerned at the prospect of climbing down the rock face and finding our way back to the camp in the dark.

Children from a local orphanage at Spitzkoppe sing and dance for us

Fortunately we all made it down without accident but the walk was something of a struggle. We had been warned about the venomous snakes in this region and I certainly did not want to step on one as I stumbled along. In spite of the darkness, our guide seemed to know exactly where he was going and made sure that we all got back to camp safely. By that time it was pitch dark.
After dinner we were entertained by six local singers who sang some beautiful songs to us. It was especially touching when they sang the Namibian National Anthem and asked us to stand as a mark of respect. It was very evident that the people here share a genuine affection for their young nation. It made a fantastic end to a very memorable day.

Thursday 12th April – 420 km to the Himba Village

There are two alternate routes from Spitzkoppe to Kamanjab, however recent heavy rains in Angola had resulted in flooded rivers and meant that we had to follow the much longer route (over 400km in fact). As we travelled the landscape underwent a steady transformation from barren and rocky to scrubby bushlands punctuated by short trees and thin wispy undergrowth.

Young Himba girl with ochre caked hair

The day’s drive took us much further northwards towards the famous Etosha National Park and the border with Angola. Our final destination for the day was the region of Kamanjab, home of the Himba Tribe. Along the way we passed through the town of Outjo, regarded as the gateway to Etosha. This place is a real frontier town with several banks, petrol stations, supermarkets and a school, although we could not get over the feeling that our every move was being watched by dozens of hungry eyes. A large proportion of the local population seemed to have no occupation other than to sit about, drink beer and ask tourists for handouts. This is one place I would not have felt comfortable travelling through on my own.

After stocking up on food, water and other supplies, we were on our way again. The narrow road to Kamanjab was paralleled by a telephone line whose poles had become the foundation for numerous social weavers’ nests. These huge nests can be a metre or more in diameter and are often shared with other cohabiting animals such as wasps. We also found a tribe of baboons who were using the posts to gain an elevated view of their surroundings.

We arrived at the Himba Village quite late in the day. Unlike the Damara, these people have ignored the modern world and chosen to live in much the same way that they have done for thousands of years. Although we noticed that the menfolk are more inclined to wear jeans and T shirts, the women still wear little more than a short apron around their waists. They spend most of their days looking after their cattle and fixing each other’s hair. Apparently they do not wash after reaching puberty, preferring instead to follow a daily routine of purifying themselves over a small smoky fire. The most unique feature of the women is their hair which is styled into thick braids and then covered with a liberal layer of mud This gives the women a Medusa like appearance. In spite of their apparent lack of western hygiene and their mud covered hair, Himba women are often regarded as the most beautiful in Africa.

Bob pictured with his blushing new Himba bride after his surprise wedding

In fact Bob was so infatuated with the Himba women that he decided that it would be a good idea to marry one of them. He selected a well built specimen and we conducted a short ceremony for the happy couple. Unfortunately he didn’t possess enough cattle to legalise the marriage and, alas for poor Bob, he had to return to his tent alone.

In spite of their primitive appearance the Himba are quite a wealthy tribe, deriving most of their income from their cattle and also from selling handicrafts to tourists.

The campsite was in an isolated spot and, once the sun went down, we were treated to another brilliant display from the myriad stars overhead. I stood outside in the middle of the night and marvelled at the brightness of the Milky Way. Before the coming of the industrial age and the invention of artificial lighting, I guess this was how the stars would have appeared all around the world.

Friday 13th April – Etosha National Park

As we broke camp early the indications were that we were headed for another fine and hot day ahead. After another brief stop at the Himba Village we drove back to Outjo on our way to Etosha. As we were enjoying a coffee at a very nice bakery I met a guy who had been travelling for most of his life. Originally from Germany he had spent 20 years moving all over the world before finally settling in Namibia in 1994. I was curious as to what he did for a living that would enable such a wandering lifestyle. He replied that, although he had left Germany many years ago, he still received a full German pension. He went to explain that it was plenty to give him a very good lifestyle in Namibia. Judging by the huge hot breakfast that was sitting in front of him it certainly appeared that he was not suffering. Germany must have a very generous pension scheme indeed.

We returned to the bus and travelled the remaining 120 km to Okakuejo. This settlement marks the entrance to the 26,000 square kilometre Etosha National Park, regarded as one of the finest national parks in Africa.

Hungry cheetahs waiting to be fed at the Cheetah Park

Just before entering Etosha we stopped a Cheetah Park to see some cheetahs at first hand. The cheetahs were held in a large paddock surrounded by a very secure and high fence. The African keeper brought along a bucket of fresh meat and called out with a loud “Come Cheetah Come”. At first nothing happened so he tried his call a few more times until three large cheetahs emerged from the grass and came up to the fence. This gave us all an opportunity to feed them the meat (on the end of a long stick so that we didn’t lose our fingers in the process). I was surprised to hear them make a loud mewing noise, not unlike that of a domestic cat.

We happened to arrive at our camp site at peak hour, along with several other safari groups. In spite of this the camping ground was in excellent condition and the water in the shower was HOT (with a capital H).

Not long after entering the park we saw our first elephant and numerous zebras. All on board the bus grabbed their cameras and started a clicking frenzy. In is hard to believe that within 24 hours a similar encounter would be met with a satiated indifference.

A large proportion of the park is occupied by a flat salt pan known as the “Etosha Pan”. As we approached it in the fading light it looked like a huge inland sea, however as we got closer we discovered that the water was a mirage and that the pan was completely dry. We did observe numerous animals enjoying the cool of the late afternoon. Groups of giraffes and springboks were scattered as far as we could see. With their rapidly lengthening shadows I could not help but think that the scene looked like something from the dawn of time. I wondered how many millions of times this scene had been re enacted.

Our first wild elephant sighting – Etosha National Park, Namibia

After sunset we walked to a nearby waterhole on the edge of our campsite. This was securely fenced off to protect onlookers from whatever came along to drink on the other side. It did not take long for a huge bull elephant and 5 rhinos to emerge from the darkness to enjoy a long time of drinking and splashing about in the water. I was glad that I had smothered myself in insect repellent and I hoped that the malaria carrying mosquitoes would keep a healthy distance from me.

Not long after going to bed that night the entire campsite was rocked by a series of loud roars, indicating that the lions were wandering quite close nearby. Heard under these circumstances it really did sound like an important statement from the King of the Jungle. Still later the same night I was woken by the piercing screeches of wandering jackals and, even later, by a car alarm. I did not mind the jackals but I could have killed the owner of the car. In the meantime Bob, having switched off his hearing aid, blissfully slept through the entire cacophony.

Saturday 14th April – In Etosha National Park

We awoke early to take the bus on an early morning game drive. This is the best time to view the animals before the heat of the day sends them scurrying for shade and shelter. It did not take long for us to come across huge herds of hundreds of zebras and springboks grazing together. Somehow I had not expected to see zebras in such large numbers and the sight caught me by surprise. I was also amused to hear the zebras loudly making a noise like a cross between a dog and a donkey.

Apart from the zebras we also came across grazing groups of impala, oryx, kudu, wildebeest and giraffes. In fact the sheer density of life in this place is amazing. Later in the day we climbed back aboard the bus for another game drive. Once again we were blessed with viewings of an abundance of wildlife. The most dramatic of these was a close and clear sighting of a black rhinoceros drinking at a waterhole. These are among the most dangerous of all the animals in the park and have a reputation for being aggressive and ill tempered, likely to charge at any perceived provocation.

Zebras having a sand bath – Etosha National Park
Giraffes, wildebeest and spingboks on the Etosha Pan at Sunset
Sunset in Etosha

That evening I returned to the waterhole, once again lathered with repellent. This time I found two large elephants drinking, dramatically backlit by an almost continuous display of sheet lightning in the near distance. In the middle of the night when I was sleeping in the tent I was awakened by crashing thunder, lightning and heavy rain. There was a rush of frantic activity to close all the zippers and waterproof the tent. I called out to Bob for help but without his hearing aid he once again blissfully spelt through the entire exciting episode.

The storm raged for about 20 minutes but served to clear the air of excess humidity and ensured that the next day was much cooler and more comfortable than the previous few days.

Sunday 15th April – To Namutoni Camp

Zebras, springboks and an oryx at a waterhole
An exciting sighting of a rare black rhino. These are highly endangered with only about 2000 now remaining in Africa.
Jackals feeding on the carcass of a dead zebra
Glenda having some fun with Tickey on the Etosha Pan. This was one of the few places where it was safe to leave the vehicle without fear of wild animals in the vicinity.
Springboks grazing on the edge of the Etosha Pan
Mealtimes are always lots of fun – the food was superb

It was somewhat of a relief to find that the overnight storms had broken the run of hot weather. Today was positively cool by comparison. We began at 6.30 am, struggling to pack up the wet tents and then started out on a slow and meandering drive to Namutoni Camp at the eastern border of the park. It was the site of a German fort in colonial times and this heritage is still clearly evident. At first glance the main building looks like something you would see in a Beau Geste movie. I half expected to see the French foreign legion come marching out through the entrance.

Along the way through the park we saw more groups of giraffes and untold numbers of zebras, wildebeest, springbok and impala. We even spotted two cheetahs hiding in the long grass. The undoubted highlight was when we came across a recent zebra kill and were able to watch a group of jackals and pied crows fighting over the remnants. It was a dramatic demonstration of the relentless flow of life in the wild.

The fort itself is a whitewashed structure, complete with battlements and corner lookout towers. Surrounding the fort is a large collection of small chalets and an extensive camping area. Like the previous camp at Okaukejo, this camp also had a fenced waterhole where you could sit and watch the animals come to drink.

Inquisitive (and naughty) mongoose exploring our campsite in Namutoni

During the afternoon while I was relaxing in the camp ground we witnessed the spectacle of a mongoose invasion. Dozens of the little striped mammals appeared from nowhere and were soon scurrying everywhere around us. We were warned to lock the tents as the little creatures have a reputation for being “very naughty” and would cause havoc if they got inside. About 20 minutes later the little mongeese were nowhere to be seen. They had disappeared just as quickly as they had appeared. Africa is full of such surprises around every corner.

Another pleasant surprise was the soft green grass that covered the camping area. It certainly was more comfortable that the stony ground we had experienced at every previous site. I guess this was a sure sign that we were moving towards a completely different type of geographical region. Gone were the deserts of Namibia and we were now heading towards the much wetter region surrounding the Okavango Delta.

Monday April 16th – To the Okavango

We awoke at the ungodly hour of 3.45 am. Those who think that these trips are a bit of a doddle just have no idea what they are talking about. To the contrary we were beginning to feel that we were undertaking some sort of military training as the pace was pretty relentless every day.

Apart from the light of the brightly shining stars overhead there was no sign of either sun or moon as we packed up our tents in the pre dawn darkness. Gradually the rest of the team roused themselves from the Land of Nod and started the onerous job of breaking camp once again.

By 6 am we were all packed and ready to leave Etosha after a fantastic two days spent here. Our day’s journey was going to take us from Etosha still further north to the far north-eastern corner of Namibia and the Angolan border. It is here you find the narrow strip of Namibian territory known as the Caprivi Strip. This narrow strip is bordered by Angola to the north and Botswana to the south.

Altogether we had about 650 km to travel before nightfall so we settled down to a long day on the bus. Fortunately the roads in this region are sealed, meaning that we could maintain a good speed all the way. Although we were on one of the major highways of Namibia, there was almost no traffic and we could easily travel for an hour or more at a time without seeing another vehicle.

As we travelled further we noticed a steady change in the vegetation we were passing through. The road was passing over a central plateau and rose steadily from about 1100 m to over 1500 m above sea level. We entered a region where the trees were thicker and taller than any we had seen previously. For the first time we also noticed a lot of agricultural activity – mostly corn and cattle.

Another thing that was evident was the higher population density. Every few minutes we passed by another small native settlement, each one consisting of a small number of thatched huts. The group of huts was always surrounded by a high fence, presumably to keep wild animals out.

To avoid the hottest part of the day schools here run from 7 am to 1 pm. When the clock ticked to 1 pm the roads were inundated with numerous groups of students and teachers walking back to their villages. While most chose the safer route along the edge of the road I was rather concerned to see some walking right down the middle. They obviously don’t expect to see many cars.

At one point we stopped and our guide pointed out the very important Marula tree growing by the side of the road. These trees produce a golf ball sized nut which has a very high concentration of vitamin C (apparently about 8 times higher than an orange). These nuts can also be fermented to make the popular Amarula Liqueur. There are many stories about wild animals (including elephants) becoming intoxicated from eating marula nuts, but other animal experts have cast doubt on their validity.

In many places the road continues dead straight for many kilometres at a time, reminding me again of just how vast the African continent is. Although we had now travelled more than halfway from the Cape of Good Hope to the Equator, when viewed on a map of Africa we had hardly made a scratch.

Finally, at about 5 pm, we were told that our long day’s travel was nearing an end. We were certainly looking forward to being able to get out of the bus and having a good stretch. Turning a right hand corner we gained our first view of the famous Okavango River, although in this region it is actually called the Cubango River. Heavy rains in Angola had swollen its flow so that it had broken its banks and had spread into the surrounding lowlands. What a contrast this was when compared to the barren deserts we had been travelling through just a few days earlier. We were now surrounded by a sea of green grass and an apparently unlimited supply of fresh water.

Tickey pulled off the sealed road and onto a very narrow and rough track through the sand. The sign at the turnoff proclaimed “Ngepi Tree House Lodge 4 km”. We did not realise that the main excitement for the day was just about to begin. With branches scraping along both side of the bus we lurched violently from side to side as Tickey fought hard to keep moving through the soft sand.

After some time of battling along this track we came up alongside the swollen Okavango. It had not only burst its banks but apparently it had flooded a good proportion of our camp site, including at least one of the tree houses that we booked to stay in. When Tickey turned directly into the river we could not help getting a little alarmed. The water was flowing swiftly across our path and there was no way to tell how deep it was. I had visions of us being swept directly into the crocodile infested Okavango.

My bush hut in Ngepi Camp – but watch out for the visiting hippos !

Just as we were about to enter the water Tickey directed young Richard to walk ahead of the bus to test the depth of the water and the firmness of the track underneath. I am not sure how well Richard took this instruction but he jumped out and tentatively probed ahead for a safe path through the water. Tickey started driving close behind and I could not help but notice that the only part of him that was white were his knuckles on the steering wheel. I glimpsed out of the window at the water swirling all around us and could only hope that Tickey had done this many times before (I later found out that he hadn’t).

As the bus dropped deeper into the swollen river the water rose rapidly up the steps into the cabin. Anxious faces around me were anticipating a certain doom but somehow the bus kept inching forwards until it finally began to rise again on the far side. I felt a a collective release of held breaths. Maybe we wouldn’t die after all, but it sure had been another adventure in a trip that we will never forget.

When we finally reached the reception area we found it to be almost underwater but somehow Tickey squeezed the bus alongside and we splashed through the water to higher and drier ground. A couple of staff members carried our luggage from the bus to the campsite. You could not help but feel that we were sitting in the middle of the river as we had water flowing past both sides. I tried not to think about what would happen if the water level rose any further during the night.

Claire, the young manager, told us that one of the tree houses was under water and would not be available. Unfortunately this meant that Bob and I would have to settle for an alternate type of accommodation for our stay. This was a little disappointing as we had been really looking forward to sleeping over the river, but there was no other alternative. At least the remaining tree houses were just above the water line so everyone else would be able to experience the Okavango at very close hand.

Now that we had arrived at Ngepi we could actually begin to have a good look at our surroundings. The camp itself was on a narrow strip of land, bounded on one side by the swollen Okavango and on the other side by the overflow from the river. To all intents and purposes we were camping on an island. The famous tree houses that we had heard so much about were really quite unique. Each hut is made out of little more than bamboo and thatch and is open to the weather on most sides. The ones on the river open up to give the resident an unbroken view out on the water. Every hut had been built on a different plan and we spent some time just looking at each hut to see what surprises it contained. It truly was a wonderful place. Above each bed is a large mosquito net to keep the malaria carrying mossies at bay. A single small fluoro hung from the ceiling and the toilet and shower allowed you to attend to your business as close as possible to nature.

When Bob and I were shown to the alternate hut that was available for us I was a little disappointed that we would not be able to directly see the river. On the other hand we actually had a room each, meaning that we would have a little space to spread out and I would not be entertained by Bob’s energetic snoring each night. I suppose it really is true when they say that every cloud has a silver lining!

Ghostriders sitting by the Okavango River, updating their journals

We quickly unpacked in the rapidly failing light and joined our group for dinner in the open restaurant on the water’s edge. The sign near the entrance reminded us to “Beware of hippos and crocodiles”. I could not imagine a more exotic location than this and Australia was beginning to seem like a distant memory.

It had been a long and eventful day and soon after 8 pm I went to bed and spent some time struggling to get the mosquito net securely arranged around me. During the night I awoke several times to the sounds of nearby hippos grunting and splashing about. Apparently they emerge from the river every night to graze on their favourite trees in the campsite.

One of the “back to nature” bathrooms at Ngepi – we quickly fell in love with this place

The next morning I discovered that I had a large mosquito bite on my big toe. The bed was quite small and I had obviously poked my foot out the end while I was asleep. I tried not to worry about whether or not the guilty mozzie might have been carrying malaria or some other horrific disease. It was too late now to make any difference. I also discovered a spider on the wall next to our toilet. It looked a bit like a small huntsman and it turned out to be the first and only spider I ever saw in Africa. At the start of our trip I had warned everyone to be on the lookout for the dreaded “two headed black mambas” and, somewhat surprisingly, we never saw one of those either.

Tuesday 17th April – On the Okavango

I am writing this seated at a table overlooking the Okavango River. Around me several others of our group are also updating their journals and enjoying a couple of hours of serenity in these incredible surroundings. The river was still flowing rapidly although it had fallen slightly since yesterday. When I checked on the condition of our bus I was relieved to find that two of its wheels were now out of the water.

The weather this morning is delightful – warm and clear with a lovely cool breeze over the river. At the current time I could not possibly think of any other place that I would rather be.
After lunch Rick suggested that we could hire some bikes and ride to a place called Popa Falls. “It should not be a very hard ride”, he assured us. The camp managed to scrounge out 10 bikes from somewhere, as well as 10 helmets. Unfortunately the helmets were all size small and not much use to someone like me with a man sized head. There was just no way I could fit my head into such a small helmet, I might just as well try to poke it through a keyhole. For once in my life I had to forsake my principles and ride without a helmet.

The bikes were loaded onto a flat bottomed boat and transported a short distance downstream to where we would start the ride. We climbed aboard a huge 4 wheel drive Land Cruiser and proceeded to drive back across the Okavango to meet up with the bikes. About 15 minutes later, bikes and riders were reunited and we wobbled off into the unknown.
We had not gone far before we realised that the ride would not be an “easy” one or even a “moderate” one for that matter. The path consisted of thick sand for several kilometres and the combination of loose sand, crappy bikes and the now baking sun, soon began to take its toll. Each metre of progress could only be achieved with a huge expenditure of both concentration and energy. Soon we were all sweating freely and complaining bitterly about the &$@*% sand.

The other problem we faced was lack of water. Most of us only had 1 water bottle and I started to worry about the dangers of becoming dehydrated in these conditions. For some of our team it quickly became the hardest ride they had ever done.

We finally reached a sealed road and were relieved to be able to cover some distance. Unfortunately no one knew just how far away these famous Popa Falls were. The only thing keeping us going were the friendly waves and smiles from passing locals, although they may have just been laughing at our stupidity.

Just when I was beginning to think we should turn back, we noticed the large sign to Popa Falls Resort. Even more welcome was the discovery that the resort had a small kiosk, stocked with ice cold drinks. This gave us a chance to replace some body fluids before viewing the falls.

Eager to see the falls we had worked so hard to witness, we walked down the path to the river and then waded across the thigh high water. Unfortunately it was all in vain as we still could not see a damn thing. I think we were all a little disappointed to find that the only way you can really see the falls is from an airplane.

We did have one interesting encounter at the resort when we met a middle aged couple from Denmark who had spent the last 4 years travelling the world in their 4 wheel drive camping behemoth. He told me that it had been specially built for them at a cost of over 500,000 Euros. When we told him that we were from Australia, he replied that “They knew a girl from Tasmania”. Of course he was referring to Princess Mary.

Our ride was only half over as we still had to fight our through the sand and heat all the way back to Ngepi. We did not get back until about 5 pm with all agreeing that it had been a worthwhile but tough challenge. At least we could say that we had ridden a bike in Namibia. It was only later that evening that we were told that no other group had managed to ride all the way to Popa and back again. Apparently the last group only made it half way and had to be rescued !

The author (minus helmet), finally back at the Okavango after a blistering ride through the sand to Popa Falls

The time is now 6.30 pm and I am back sitting at a table by the river. A few minutes ago another hippopotamus came out of the river for a walk around the campsite and was quickly chased back into the water which he entered with a huge splash and a big cheer from the chasers. Life in Africa sure is different.

Wednesday 18th April – To Victoria Falls (551 km)

During the evening I was again awoken several times by the loud grunting of hippos near our hut. At about midnight I heard a rapping at the bamboo screen. It was the security guard asking me if I wanted to accompany him on his next hippo chasing round. I hastily grabbed some clothes and my torch and staggered out into the darkness behind him.

It did not take long before we saw the fat backsides of two hippos happily grazing on the lawn near the restaurant. Although some experts claim that hippos are the most dangerous animals in Africa it seemed to me that these huge creatures are really quite shy and try to avoid conflict whenever possible. As we approached they quickly waddled back into the darkness and made two massive splashes as they dove into the Okavango. I also staggered back to my hut and made another huge splash as I collapsed onto the bed, wrapped myself in the mosquito net and tried to get back to sleep.

Aroused by the hippo encounter and hopelessly entangled in the mosquito net, I only slept fitfully for the remainder of the night. Frequently I heard the overworked guard futilely chasing marauding hippos from one end of our camp to the other. I could not help thinking that the hippos were like naughty schoolboys stealing apples from the farmer’s orchard and that the guard’s work would never be completed – as fast as he chased each hippo back into the river it was replaced by another two of its mates.

At 5.30 am I finally gave up on sleep, untangled myself from the bonds of the mosquito net and started packing for the long day ahead. Soon after 7 am we were all on the bus and ready to go. The drive back across the Okavango did not seem anywhere near as scary as it had on the way in. It is amazing how quickly we can become conditioned to excitement (and the river had also fallen steadily over the past 48 hours).

Bouncing along the sandy path back to the bitumen reminded me of how much of an achievement the previous day’s ride had been. If the bus was having so much trouble with its huge wheels, it is little wonder that our tiny bike wheels kept sinking and bringing us to one stop after another.

The sealed road follows the centre of the Caprivi Strip through the Bwabwata National Park. It was a smooth road and the complete lack of other traffic meant that we made excellent early speed. At one point we passed a road sign warning us to “BEWARE OF ELEPHANTS”- now that’s a sign that I haven’t seen in Australia.

At the eastern end of the Caprivi Strip on the border with Zambia is the frontier town of Katima Mulilo. I was somewhat surprised to find a modern shopping centre, similar to any shopping mall you would find in a western country. On further investigation I even managed to find a lovely little Italian restaurant, complete with cappuccino machine and wonderful clean toilets.
Soon after leaving Katima Mulilo we reached the border crossing to Zambia. After spending two weeks in Namibia we had all grown to love this sparsely inhabited land of such contrasts. Although it has a wide diversity of ethnic groups they all share a genuine love for their country. We also gained the impression that it was a well governed country with a steadily developing infrastructure. Although we were keen to see Zambia it was hard not to feel a little sorry to be saying goodbye to Namibia.

The border formalities to exit Namibia were conducted efficiently and we then crossed over into the unknown world of Zambia. We immediately became aware of the huge difference between the two countries. There was no doubt that we had stepped back into a much more impoverished and backward nation. The Zambian Immigration “Office” was a shabby little shed with no computer facilities, just two friendly officials who did their best to struggle with the sudden rush of travellers. The visa entry fee for Zambia must be paid for in $USD but the hassled staff had no change whatsoever. This made for a rush of impromptu money changing within our group. Somehow we all managed to find the exact money and we were able to resume our journey into Zambia without undue delay.

Immediately after crossing the border we saw the mighty Zambezi River for the first time. The Zambesi is the third longest river in Africa and it really is an impressive sight. The river is wide and rapidly moving and it is this vast mass of moving water that later creates the spectacle of Victoria Falls.

The road on the Zambian side was a far cry from the smooth bitumen we had enjoyed in Namibia. It was narrow and punctuated by frequent patches of potholes, often requiring our bus to virtually stop or veer to the other side of the road. Our rate of progress slowed considerably as we passed by successions of decrepit businesses and makeshift roadside stalls. Many of these were run by small children. In some ways the surroundings reminded me of the poor areas of Nepal. Without any form of social security, people have no alternative than to subsist in any way they can.

We stopped for a quick roadside lunch and noticed a small group of locals trying to attach a prehistoric bicycle to a huge old horse cart. Anyone could see that there was no way it was going to work, especially when the only thing that had to secure the bike to the cart was an old inner tube. I suppose they had no better way to pass the time and seemed quite proud of their ingenuity. I tried climbing on the bike and trying to peddle but I could not get it budge even a centimetre. It looked like the back wheel would collapse long before the cart would move. Considering it had no brakes and could not be steered, it was probably just as well that it did not move.

The hybrid bike/cart – note the flat tyres! It wouldn’t move an inch (even with the proud inventor pushing).

We finally drove in Livingstone at about 4.30 pm and got our first sight of the famous mist rising from the falls. This mist can be seen from as far away as 20km and is the reason why the locals refer to the falls as “the smoke that thunders”. These falls were first seen by Europeans in 1855 when David Livingstone was taken there by a group of natives. He was so impressed that he regarded them as a true miracle of nature. He considered them to be so beautiful that he thought the angels would watch them from heaven.

Because the day was well advanced we drove directly to the falls in order to see them before nightfall. I was very keen to see these famous falls at first hand. Travel writers often argue over which of the world’s two biggest waterfalls (Iguassu Falls in Argentina & Victoria Falls) is the most spectacular. Since we had been to Iguassu in 2010 I was also keen to see how they compared.
Long before you can see the falls themselves you can hear the mighty roar of the tumbling Zambezi waters. We paid the $US 20 entry fee and followed the meandering path to the first viewing platform. Of course you cannot view such massive waterfalls without getting drenched and soon we were all soaked to the skin. Fortunately the water was not cold but it was certainly very, very wet.

The falls themselves are 1.7 km wide and over a 100 metres high, although it is not possible to view the entire width of the falls from any one particular location (apart from in the air). The massive amount of spray also greatly obscures clear viewing, although for short intervals of time it does seem to abate slightly, only to be quickly replaced by another deluge. In my opinion the viewing at Iguassu is a lot clearer and the walkways there are much more sophisticated, allowing you to get much closer access to the falls themselves. The quality of the Zambian paths was rather primitive, with only rudimentary safety rails. A careless step could easily send a small child or a careless onlooker over the edge and into the watery tumult. We had been told that the viewing is better from the Zimbabwe side so I decided to spend the following day over the border.

Soaked and bedraggled I returned to the entrance and spent some time running the gauntlet of the eager hawkers at the nearby market. They had some great stuff for sale but their aggressive sales techniques were rather daunting. I did eventually find the most effective strategy was to simply explain to each stall holder that I wanted to look at their goods, but if they started to pester me, I would immediately move to the next stall. This proved very successful and I was left to browse in peace. I came away with several purchases, including a wad of the old Zimbabwe banknotes – due to hyperinflation they printed notes with denominations up to 50 trillion dollars!

Our wonderful chalet at Zambezi Waterfront Lodge

When everyone had returned to the bus we drove to the Zambezi Waterfront Lodge which was to be our home for the next two nights. This beautiful lodge is located right on the banks of the Zambezi River and its delightful chalet type units were a very welcome sight after our long, long day. Bob and I made the very happy discovery that our room was a luxurious upstairs room with no less than 4 beds, a balcony overlooking the river, plenty of hot water and a huge bathroom (it even boasted a large spa). It was indeed a tired traveller’s heaven. Even Bob’s snoring on the other side of the room would not keep me awoke here.

During the evening meal we were entertained by an energetic group of African singers and dancers. The rhythms and harmonies drifted out over the wide Zambezi. It the distance we could still hear the background noise of the water cascading over the falls. It had been a truly memorable day.

Thursday 19th April – Into Zimbabwe

Since this was a free day, many of our group had chosen to participate in one or more of the many adventure activities available in Livingstone. These include helicopter flights over the falls, lion and elephant encounters and many more. For me, I was quite content to have a slow morning to catch up on my note writing and savour the views out over the Zambezi.

Later that morning 9 of us gathered together for the trip across to Zimbabwe in order to view the falls from the other side of the river. We crowded into a mini bus designed to “carry 6 passengers”. With its cracked windscreen and broken speedometer there is no way it would have passed a roadworthy in Australia but Herbert, our gentle driver made up for the lack of comfort by his great assistance in helping us through the border formalities.

The actual border between Zambia and Zimbabwe is halfway across the Zambezi Bridge and there is a line drawn across the carriageway to mark the transition from one country to the next. The procedures at both the Zambian and Zimbabwe side are shambolic to say the least. You also have to run the gauntlet of all the eager salespeople who have decided that this is a great place to peddle their wares.

The bridge itself offers superb views. From one side you can look back up the river to the Victoria Falls and on the other side you see straight down the Zambezi Gorge. This bridge is the site for several adrenaline packed adventure activities including bungie jumping and swing diving across the river. Just a couple of weeks earlier a young female bungie jumper was lucky to survive when her bungie cord broke and she was sent crashing into the Zambezi River.

After clearing immigration and getting even more stickers and stamps in our passports we paid another USD $30 entry fee to the falls themselves. The infrastructure of the park on the Zimbabwe side is even less developed than on the Zambian side. There is a network of walking paths to view the falls from various vantage points however I was surprised to find that there were no safety fences at all. The only thing between the viewer and certain death was a tangle of small thorn branches that had been laid along the edge.

It did not take long to get a complete drenching from the spray but this time I had paid $2 to hire a raincoat from a vendor at the entrance. It was worth it, although I felt that I must have looked like a yellow munchkin. The actual Falls themselves are certainly an incredible sight and it is no wonder that David Livingstone was so captivated by them. Unfortunately for him and his staff his adventure did not have a happy ending for all of them eventually died from Malaria.

The sheer volume of water from the Zambezi as it cascades over the falls and into the Zambezi Gorge is hard to comprehend. I stood for some time just staring at the spectacle and vainly trying to firmly imbed it in my memory bank. Sometimes it is best to just put the camera away and just drink in the experience instead. In this case I was literally drinking in the Zambezi because its waters were streaming down my face and running off my chin.

After spending a couple of hours at the Zimbabwe Victoria Falls we recrossed the bridge and caught a taxi back to our lodge. Late in the afternoon I joined a sunset cruise on the river. The boat slowly cruised around the huge expanse of water above the falls, allowing us to gain a firsthand view of the river and its associated wildlife. In the back of my mind I could not help but wonder what we would do if the motor stalled. Images of the boat being carried over the edge of the falls fleeted in and out of my imagination.

Fortunately no such mishap occurred and the boat returned safely to the lodge. Later on we enjoyed another evening meal by the side of the river. This time there was no entertainment apart from the continuing roar of the falls. I had to admit that this would be a marvellous place to spend some more time, however we were due to move on to Botswana the following morning.

Friday 20th April – Chobe National Park Botswana

The border crossing from Zambia to Botswana was absolute chaos with a massive backlog of huge trucks (most laden with copper ingots). Add in a generous number of enthusiastic hawkers, a handful of security staff, a few stray dogs and clouds of dust and you have a good recipe for mass confusion. The slow ferry crossing can only take 1 truck at a time so it looked like some of the trucks would be waiting for many hours or days. It was little wonder that the drivers were settled in the shade, chatting and playing cards. They were obviously used to this sort of delay. Fortunately passenger buses get priority treatment and we were able to jump the long queue and get across the river after only 30 minutes wait.

On the opposite side of the river we entered Botswana. This was a country that I had first gained an interest in from reading the “Number 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” series by Alexander McCall Smith. These painted a delightful picture of Botswana being a shining light to the other nations of Africa. Most of those in our group had also read these books and were keen to see the country we had read about.

Soon after entering Botswana we stopped in the border town of Kasane and were able to buy some morning tea. The town was relatively modern but it was a strange sight to see wandering warthogs happily strolling about the shopping centre. They seemed friendly enough and were obviously used to mixing with humans.

Friendly warthogs casually wandering the main street of Kasane, Botswana

Our destination was the Chobe Safari Lodge. This is one of many large tourist lodges in this area and was ideally situated right on the banks of the wide Chobe River. Although we would be staying in our tents, there were also many other accommodation options for those with larger budgets than us.

Large crocodile on the side of the Chobe River
We saw hundreds of elephants feeding on the banks of the Chobe River
Sunset on the mighty Chobe River, Botswana

Late in the afternoon we set out on a sunset cruise on the river and witnessed a staggering display of dozens of elephants, rhinos, hippos and crocodiles gathered on the river banks. The highlight was a solitary lion slowly making its way along the river. The proliferation of life in this park was far greater that any of us could have hoped to have seen. What a contrast to the dry deserts of Namibia, which by now seemed so far away.

As the sun reached the horizon the sky was painted with a dazzling display of bright red and orange hues. Although the sunsets are incredible, you do have to be quick with the camera as darkness comes swiftly.

Saturday 21st April – Khama Rhino Sanctuary (725 km)

Once again we had a very early start to the day. This time our alarm was set for 5.15am in preparation for what was going to be the longest day of our entire safari – a bum numbing 725 km all the way to the Khama Rhino Sanctuary in Botswana.

After a period of frenzied, but by now well practised, camp breaking we were actually underway by 6.50 am (10 mins ahead of our schedule). Our route took us back to Kasane and then south along the main national highway towards Gaborone, the capital of Botswana. We soon discovered that the roads in Botswana are “streets ahead’ of those in either Namibia or Zambia and we were able to make excellent time on wide paved roads all day.

Not long after leaving Kasane we encountered the undoubted highlight of the day when a group of young lions were moving just near the edge of the road. I made a grab for my camera but was not quick enough to catch them before they slunk back into the undergrowth.

The traffic was almost nonexistent, apart from when we passed through Francistown. With a population of 85,000 it is the second largest city of Botswana and is often referred to as the capital of the north. Gaborone, the capital, is about another 400km to the south. As we made our way through the afternoon peak traffic of Princetown we could see it as a bustling, modern city. It had obviously come a long way in the 46 years since Botswana gained its independence.

At that time Botswana was one of the poorest countries in Africa however it can now boast one of the highest growth rates in the world and is now regarded as one of the greatest success stories in Africa. Unlike many other countries in this region, Botswana has a stable democracy with virtually no corruption. As far as the country itself is concerned, 70% of Botswana is made up of the Kalahari Desert and, with a population of only 2 million people, it is one of the most sparsely populated countries on earth. Agriculture is only possible in a narrow strip down its eastern side where the rainfall is higher and irrigation can be used to boost production.

Donkey carts are a very common means of transport in Southern Africa

As we drove we noticed that one of the most popular forms of transport for the locals were small donkey carts, pulled by between 1 to 4 donkeys. They were used for carrying a wide variety of goods and also as general people carriers as well. It was not uncommon to see numerous donkeys grazing by the sides of the road where they obviously serve a dual purpose as municipal lawn mowers.

We finally rolled into the Khama Rhino Sanctuary at 5.30 pm and we were keen to set up camp before the sun dropped below the horizon. Once the sun disappeared the temperature also dropped quickly and this was actually the first night that I slept inside my sleeping bag. Outside it was a crystal clear, moonless night and the stars were perhaps the brightest we had seen in the trip so far. Each time I gazed up I was reminded that we really were “Under African Skies”. Although the constellations were the same southern constellations that I was familiar with in Australia, somehow the feeling was quite different.

Our campsite for the evening was the Khama Rhino Sanctuary. This was established in 1989 as a safe haven for protecting the highly endangered white rhinoceros. Over the next several years rhinos we relocated here from other locations and, according the latest figures, the sanctuary is now home to 34 white rhinos and 2 black rhinos. (By the way the names “white” and “black” rhinos do NOT refer to the skin colour). The park is now protected by 28 km of electric fences, not only to keep the rhinos in but, more importantly, to help keep poachers out.
After so many years of dreaming and reading about Africa it was still hard to believe that we were here in the heart of the continent. At the same time I knew that our adventure was now rapidly drawing to a close. We were now rapidly heading southwards towards Johannesburg where our African odyssey would officially end. Although we had only been here a few short weeks I good easily see how Africa really could get into your blood. Over the centuries many Europeans have visited this continent and found that it so captivated them that they spent the rest of their lives here. It truly is a huge, wild and unforgiving continent but the beauty is astounding. In particular I would have loved to have spent some more time in Namibia and Botswana but that was not to be, at least not on this trip.

Sunday 22nd April – To the Limpopo River and South Africa

With the prospect of a less demanding day ahead we did not break camp till the relatively late hour of 8.30am. Because the day was a Sunday and, since Botswana is a devoutly Christian country with very conservative morals, we noticed many groups of people making their way to their local churches. We also found that we had to regularly stop to make way for numerous donkeys, goats, cows and assorted other animals crossing the road in front of us.

Our first major stop was at the Limpopo River, which marks the border between Botswana and South Africa. We quickly cleared all the immigration formalities, even though one of our participants did not have the required Yellow Fever Vaccination certificate. We said goodbye to Botswana with a growing sense that our safari really was nearing its final stages. The simple fact was that we had all had such an amazing time that no one wanted it to come to an end, yet in two day’s time we would be flying out of Africa and heading back to Australia. On the other hand there is always something extra special about being back in your own bed and enjoying the luxury of your own toilet.

Crossing into South Africa you immediately notice a big change in the standard of the infrastructure. Large modern farms with modern tractors were growing crops with the aid of irrigation from the Limpopo River. In many places you could be forgiven for thinking that we were already back in Australia and driving somewhere in Victoria.

At midafternoon we pulled into the Mabula Game Lodge and were excited to find that we had the option to upgrade to small bush huts instead of erecting our tents. Although our tents were spacious and we had all become quite proficient in erecting and packing them up, faced with the choice of a tent or a real bed, I grabbed my bag and headed for the nearest hut. It was a relief to be able to leave the tents in the bus. This also gave us some extra time to relax and explore the surroundings.

One sour note on the atmosphere was that Mabula is a Game Lodge, meaning that foreigners (mostly Americans) can pay a large fee and then come to shoot the animals that are within the park. In the office there were dozens of photos of the smiling faces of rich Americans carefully posed with their massive guns and their dead springboks, warthogs, wildebeest and the rest. In fact it looked like they had carte blanche to shoot anything with four legs. We had noticed a female donkey and her baby wandering about the campsite and we later found out that some shooters from the USA had recently killed the male donkey to use for bait to attract leopards so that they could shoot them. Personally I cannot begin to understand this mentality. I will never be able to regard it as “sport” as the Americans do. Perhaps it would be more “sporting” if they faced a lion in the wild armed only with a spear like the Masai warriors. That way the lion would at least have a sporting chance at survival. When a rich westerner armed with a powerful rifle with a telescopic sight and sitting in the back of a 4 wheel drive confronts a defenceless grazing springbok, it does not seem like an even competition to me.

Female doney and her offspring. The father had been shot by Americans to use for bait.

We had also been warned not to wander far from the campsite lest we too become unintentional collateral targets for trigger happy shooters. The following morning we heard the sound of a large calibre weapon being fired close to camp and could not help but wonder what type of innocent animal had been the victim.

After dinner we had time to express our thanks to Tickey and Richard for the fantastic work they had done for us. We also shared some of our reminiscences of the trip we had enjoyed together. I retired to bed with a jumble of memories and emotions rushing through my head. The world that we had been so immersed in for the past few weeks would soon be nothing but a memory as we all returned back to our regular lives in Australia. I wondered how much each of us would be changed by the sights and sounds that we had witnessed together.

Monday 23rd April – Final Stage to Pretoria

Our final day on the road dawned fine and clear. I awoke early and wondered around the campsite listening for any sounds that would indicate that someone else was awake. It was not long after sunrise that the still air was shattered by the reverberating sound of a loud rifle shot. On the other side of the camp the two remaining donkeys were grazing innocently among the trees. It made me feel nauseous and I realised that I was ready to leave Mabula Game Lodge and get away from this type of needless cruelty.

Our destination for the day was the city of Pretoria, the administrative centre of the eastern half of Africa. The South African parliament sits in Pretoria for 6 months of the year and in Cape Town for the other 6 months, apparently in an attempt to appease both sides of the nation.

The actual drive should not have taken too long but we found ourselves hopelessly delayed by massive road works, which continued for no less than 60 kilometres. We had to stop frequently and wait for directions to proceed through the dust ahead. This slow progress meant that we did not arrive in Pretoria until late in the afternoon.

The Union Building in Pretoria, South Africa

Pretoria is a large city with a population of approximately 2 million people. It is a sister city to the larger Johannesburg which is about 40 km away. As we followed the freeway to the city centre I could not help thinking that it looked a lot like Melbourne (or any other modern city for that matter). The Union Building is situated at the highest point in the city and offers a panoramic view over the entire Pretoria region. This imposing building is the official seat of the South African Government.

We stopped to admire the view and to wander through the manicured gardens opposite. This also gave us the final opportunity to do some friendly bargain hunting from the traders selling handicrafts in the street. All through the trip I had been admiring the painted ostrich eggs which had been selling in every market place. It was outside the Union Building in Pretoria that I finally became the proud owner of an egg of my own, although I wondered how I would get it safely all the way back to Australia.

We climbed back aboard the bus and drove for another hour or so to our hotel near the airport. It may have been near the airport but it was not near anything else, in fact we appeared to be right in the middle of an industrial zone next to the freeway. The TV in our room did not work but the bed was warm and it was a nice way to finish our last night in Africa.

Tuesday 24th April – Goodbye Africa

Since our flight was not due to leave until late in the evening I had requested a late check out from the hotel. Although I had been assured on three separate occasions that this would be OK, I was not impressed when a hassled looking assistant knocked on my door at 10 am asking why I was still in the room. Apparently communication in the Safari Club Hotel is not their strong point. I packed as quickly as I could and carried my luggage to the lounge room where some of the others were already waiting.

While another group of our people had chosen to spend the entire day on a tour of Johannesburg, the rest of us had chosen to have a quiet day before the long trip home. The only problem was that it quickly became boring, just sitting and reading the old magazines so we decided to go straight to the airport and do the rest of our waiting there. At least there was more to see and do there.

We were met later in the afternoon by the rest of our group and we all survived the long flight back to Australia without incident. And in case you were wondering about my ostrich egg, fortunately I did get it back to Australia in one piece and it now proudly sits in the bookshelf in my study – a great reminder of my time in Africa.

Some Highlights of the Trip

  • The climb of Table Mountain (and the abseil down)
  • The trip to the Cape of Good Hope
  • Cycling in the winelands region
  • The amazing leaping fish of Walvis Bay
  • Exploring Fish River Canyon at sunset
  • Sunrise at Sossusvlei
  • Running down the largest sand dunes in the world
  • Our dancing guide at Spitzkoppe
  • The hippos of Ngepi
  • Our cycle trip to Popa Falls
  • Seafood dinner in the Tug Restaurant at Swakopmund
  • The wild animals of Etosha
  • Crossing the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe
  • Getting drenched at Victoria Falls
  • Unexpected visits to our camp by warthogs, mongeese, monkeys, donkeys, etc
  • Lunches by the roadside
  • Millions of waves and smiles from locals
  • The cheetah reserve
  • And those amazing crystal clear AFRICAN SKIES

A big thanks to

Staff at World Expeditions for assisting with the original planning and the execution of the trip
Claudius Tickey & Richard Sithole and Kiboko Tours for giving us such a great safari
All my fellow travellers who really helped make the trip such a pleasure, especially Bob for being my companion and roommate and for putting up with all my teasing throughout the trip

Participants

  • Gayle & Gerry Driessen
  • Rick and Anne Coxhill
  • Vince Carter & Jan Kennedy
  • Noel & Jenny Wolstenscroft
  • Bob Andrews
  • Dennis Dawson
  • Glenda Wise
  • Guide & Driver: Claudius Tondorai Tickey
  • Assistant Guide/Cook: Richard Sithole

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