Overlanding Africa (Pt.1)

Sunrise from on top of Dune 45, Namib-Naukluft NP

For this leg of our journey through Africa we did something we’ve never done before… we took an organized tour! We’ve always been of the mindset that tours were for the unadventurous- surely anything a company could put together we could do better and more economically! We are very independent travellers who don’t like to compromise in terms of where we go and how much time we spend in a certain place. And then there is the worry about getting along with all the others who are on a tour with you. Well, we did a lot of research via the Internet before leaving Canada and we happened across a tour company who offered overland camping trips taking in almost all of the places that we wanted to visit (for the most part). Camping seemed like a great solution in keeping costs down. Having never been to this continent before, we felt that this would be an ideal way to acclimatize to Africa before setting off on our own for the months to follow. So we swallowed our pride and booked a 20-day overland safari which would begin in Cape Town and take us through the western reaches of South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and finish nearly 6,000 kilometers later in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. The company we went with was Nomad Africa Adventure Tours (hereafter, “Nomad”). For this trip we each paid $2,000 CAD- so about $100 per person per day, and this included all transportation, accommodation (predominantly camping), food, and all attraction entrance fees as well as all game drives through the National Parks we visited. We would soon discover that in Africa we couldn’t have done it any cheaper on our own.

Our Nomad family posing in front of Luther in the Etosha Pan

We left Cape Town on the morning of February 15th after a brief rendezvous at the Nomad office. The first day was light on driving and we ended in the Cederberg region of South Africa. There we introduced ourselves and got to know each other a little better while hanging around in the swimming pool and later over dinner and some complimentary wine tasting. The following day we pushed onto the Namibian border, camping on the South African side along the picturesque Orange River. There we swam in the river and drank at the very excellent riverside bar all the while getting to know one another all the more. I think it was on that night that our greatest fear was put to rest- we would get along just fine with everyone in our group! Our group consisted of 23 travellers from a diverse sampling of countries: 14 women, 9 guys, and of those guys, four were named “Chris”. We had a guide named “Gertie”, our captain, “Cosmas”, and our ‘food engineer’, “Menzeli”- all Zimbabwean born and bred. Altogether 26 strong traveling through Southern Africa in our beloved overland truck named “Luther” (Nomad names each truck in their fleet after a dead musician, ours was named after the late Mr. Vandross). Gertie was absolutely amazing- always laughing, full of humour herself, and just a wonderful person and a brilliant guide too. Cosmas drove tirelessly through the African heat and always got us to our destinations on time and in one piece- a really nice guy as well! Menzeli always amazed us with what he could prepare under such primitive conditions. We were fed very well along the way. Luther was a very comfortable and spacious truck. Each of us had our own oversized locker that could easily store our backpacks and anything else we brought along. There was a charging station which allowed us to keep the batteries of all our devices charged and ready, and in the belly there was room for all of our tents, mattresses, chairs, tables, and all of our cooking and cleaning gear. A great vehicle custom made for long distance travel through Africa… but be careful not to call it a bus (that was the naughty “B-word”, punishable with campsite chores)! Each day four members of the group would be selected for “adventure group”, an exciting name assigned to the four people who were held responsible for cleaning up the dishes and other various tasks around camp. We were routinely and affectionately reminded that “this is an adventure, not a holiday!”

Our first night in Namibia was spent at the beautiful Fish River Canyon- the largest in Africa and second largest in the world, rivaled in size only by the Grand Canyon in America. Before the Namibian border we saw little in the way of foreign (to us) wildlife- springboks were probably the most exciting. But soon after entering Namibia, and definitely around the hills and valleys surrounding the Fish River Canyon, the number of grazing springboks grew, zebras became common and so did oryxes. It was here where we met our first San bushman who took us on a walk through the desert attempting to teach us how their people survive in the harsh conditions in which they live. It was also camping in this area where we could first really appreciate the massive, clear, and bright starry sky that would become a nightly norm.

900-year-old acacia trees inside of Dead Vlei

The next morning we broke camp and drove over 500 kilometers north into the Namib-Naukluft National Park- a highlight of Namibia and all of Africa for that matter. The Namib-Naukluft N.P. covers an area larger than Switzerland making it the largest game park in the whole of Africa. But this is one park that isn’t at all about the game, it’s the surreal desert landscapes and burnt orange coloured sand dunes that are the main attraction. The dunes are the oldest in the world and among the tallest as well with many over 200 meters and some nearly reaching a towering 400 meters in height. We did a late afternoon walk through Sesriem Canyon which was nice but not so spectacular. The real show-stopper came the next day when we climbed up Dune 45 (each notable dune is assigned a name or at least a number) to watch the sun rise over the surrounding dunes. Sunrise and sunset is by far the best time to be in the dunes, not only because it’s the times of the day when the temperatures are bearable, but mainly because these are the times when the dunes display their most vibrant colours. Crimson morphs into reds which turn to shades of orange and then give way to a spectrum of yellow. It is truly one of nature’s most breathtaking performances. By the time we got to Dead Vlei it was about 2 hours later and about 40 degrees hotter! Most of our group paid it some quick respects and retreated back to the truck in search of shade. We on the other hand lingered. This has always been one of those places on my travel ‘bucket list’, and, now that I was there, I couldn’t seem to tear myself away from it. The dead camel thorn acacias that punctuate the cracked white clay pan are ancient- some over 900 years old. When juxtaposed against the vast orange dunes, the images created are mesmerizing. It was sublime having the whole place to ourselves. After Dead Vlei we made a brief stop at Sossusvlei before joining the rest of our group back at Luther.

One of the incredible landscapes of Dead Vlei

Beautiful Spitzkoppe!

Our next stop, after a quick photo-op at the Tropic of Capricorn, was the coastal town of Swakopmund, 250 kilometers to the north. This was our first multi-day respite from our hectic travel schedule. Here we were given rooms (a welcomed break from camping) and free time to sign up for a host of outdoor activities on offer. Members of our group went skydiving (some sporting animal onesies), quading through the dunes and sandboarding. We opted to be lame and save money! Instead, we walked around the town and beach and did a lot of nothing. Swakopmund is a German town built in Bavarian style (so they say), but in our opinion the place was just weird. It was low season and the wide streets were totally devoid of any cars and people. It felt really artificial in a Truman Show kind of way. We lost one of our group members in Swakopmund but picked up a couple more as well. We were now a group of 16 gals, 8 guys, and half of those guys were still named “Chris”! Anyways, that was Swakopmund.

Day 8 of our tour took us to beautiful Spitzkoppe. The mountains and rock formations of Spitzkoppe seem to just jet out from the desert floor. The smooth granite that forms these mountains are over 700 million years old and have a lengthy human history as well. We were taken on a desert walk by a local Damara bushman who led us to some ancient Khoi San rock paintings and showed us how we can murder someone with the poison from the milk plant. Very informative! But Spitzkoppe is gorgeous and a fun place to release your inner monkey… but fu@k was it hot! We had to leave already the next morning which was one of my major regrets of the trip. I think Spitzkoppe was worthy of at least one more day and night, but this was a tour and this was the compromise. The next day we visited a Himba Tribe village en-route to Outjo which was something I was really looking forward to but something I was ultimately disappointed in. I guess I was expecting something more authentic, but this visit to this particular tribe was the same as so many other cultural visits we’ve done in the past. The Himba people, except for the children, didn’t seem too excited that we were there at all and you got the feeling that they just wanted the food and supplies that we had brought for them or for us to buy some of their homemade souvenirs. We later learned that this particular tribe wasn’t even from that area- they were just relocated there by a local business owner in hopes to attract more tourists. Boooo! What made it all better was knowing that our next stop was Etosha National Park.

The abundance of life at an Etosha waterhole

Etosha National Park is Namibia’s premier park in terms of wildlife watching and no doubt it is among the elite of all African game parks as well. The park surrounds the massive Etosha pan which is predominantly dry except for a few weeks during the wet season. This is the allure of Etosha- it is a desperately dry place so viewing animals is fairly easy as long as you can locate the sure sources of water. I can’t even describe the amount of animals we saw during our two-and-a-half days in Etosha… but I’ll give you a brief rundown. We watched a herd of nearly 40 elephants tramp through the dusty plains on their way to a waterhole (and many more throughout the park). We saw a total of 15 lions and 10 rhinos in various locations around the park. Zebras, springboks, giraffes, oryxes, impalas, hyenas, jackals, warthogs and kudus seemed to be everywhere. We even shared our campsite with a spitting cobra one night! The birdlife was also very impressive. Our campground featured a spot-lit waterhole where you could watch the wildlife come and go during the evenings and well into the night. This gave me an opportunity to test the sensitivity settings of my new camera (it did well). During the night you could hear the roaring of the lions all around. Etosha was most definitely another highlight of Namibia and of the tour as a whole. If you had to choose just one park to visit in Southern Africa, this just might be the one. Here are some reasons why…

The evening stretch, Etosha

Nighttime shot of a black rhino at the campsite waterhole

Yellow-billed hornbill, Etosha

Day 12 and we found ourselves in Windhoek, Namibia’s capital. It seemed like a clean and relatively pleasant city (by African standards) with streets and avenues named after dictators of the world, but we didn’t linger long. We were put-up at a very nice hotel for the night, the air con a blessing. That evening we went out to Joe’s Beer House- an long-standing institution in Windhoek. There we ate animals that we admired in Etosha, drank lots of beer and Jagermeister, and said goodbye to seven more of our group members, including 2 named “Chris”. A bittersweet ending to an amazing trip through Namibia. Eight more days left to conquer Botswana and Victoria Falls!

An overview of our trip

 

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