Africa: The Last Leg

Already on the beautiful island of Zanzibar we were planning the last leg of our African trip. This meant some frantic online searching for safari-equipped 4X4s and of course our plane tickets to get back to Namibia. We managed to secure both, although waiting until the last minute to book our bush and camping-equipped 4X4 was not a good idea in retrospect- it was the end of April which is the beginning of the busy season, and these vehicles are in high demand. We finally found one though with a very reputable company (this is also a very important consideration when renting in Namibia), Savanna Car Hire in Windhoek. We got ourselves a Toyota Hilux double cab equipped with a rooftop tent, fridge, and all the camping and emergency road gear you can think of for a 15-day rental which set us back around $100 per day with all of our insurance included- not bad when you consider that you are completely self-sufficient for that period of time. The only other expenses you can expect are the camping fees which average around $30 per site and, of course, fuel. There are however plenty of places in Namibia where you can find a secluded place to pull over and set up camp without paying any fees at all, but if it’s the fancy washrooms with showers, restaurants and many times even swimming pools you want, you will need to pony up on the campsite.

Our first night in the desert

If you're going to drive in Africa, you gotta learn the signs!

Having been to Namibia a few months prior on our overland tour, we knew there were some places we wanted to return to and spend some more time in, namely some areas in the Namib Desert, Spitzkoppe, and Etosha National Park. As well there were also places that we wanted to explore for the first time such as some areas off the beaten track in the Damaraland and Kaokoveld regions. As with any road trip there would also be some more impromptu stops and in some cases these would prove to be among the highlights of the trip. So, a portion of our road trip was planned and at other times we changed our course and decided to wing it, but our 15 days went without a hitch and we loved every minute of it.

Inside Dead Vlei

Another scene from Dead Vlei

After leaving Namibia’s capital of Windhoek we headed south into the Namib Desert, spending our first few days around the incredible sand dunes and desertscapes of Sossusvlei. We started our mornings before the sun came up and usually didn’t return to camp until well after sunset. Not only are the times around sunrise and sunset the most photogenic, they are also the moments of the day that offer some reprieve from the oppressive temps that is all to common in this part of the country. Many afternoons the mercury climbed to well over 40 degrees Celsius. After we had our fill of the desert we headed towards the Skeleton Coast until just north of the Cape Cross Seal Reserve which is a real treat for all your senses! Here the mornings can be downright chilly and the winds blustery but its rugged scenery is well worth checking out. We then headed inland again spending a couple of nights in one of our favourite places… Spitzkoppe. We were blown away by its beauty the first time around and knew that we couldn’t leave Africa without becoming a little better acquainted with the area.

An oryx poses pretty, Sossusvlei

The seal colony at Cape Cross

Spitzkoppe by night

We then pushed further into Damaraland through the Brandberg area and onto the incredible territory of Twyfelfontein. This region was a spontaneous stop for us and became one of the trip’s highlights. It was here where we discovered many amazing petroglyphs that dated nearly 5000 years old. It was also in this area where we hung out with a herd of over 30 endangered desert elephants and spotted a couple of cheetahs to boot! From Twyfelfontein the roads became progressively worse which signaled our arrival into the Kaokoveld (Kunene) region. This area is arid at best but the further north we pushed, beautiful Baobabs became more prevalent. At some points we couldn’t have been more than 30 kilometers from the Angolan border but we based ourselves out of Opuwo, the hub of the Kaokoveld and the capital of Namibia’s northern tribal lands. The town itself is a hubbub of activity. OvaHimba push shopping carts through the supermarket aisles, Herero women trade their wares in the streets, and groups of Zemba girls hang out on the corners. It's truly a colourful display of life. We did head out to one Himba village not too far from Opuwo which was a nice insight into their culture and a fun afternoon. This experience was much more positive than the one we endured during our overland tour. This time it was just us, our interpreter, and a village full of Himba women and children who were just as happy to spend time with us as we were with them.

One of the petroglyphs in the Twyfelfontein area

Desert elephants, Twyfelfontein

Himba woman near Opuwo

After leaving Opuwo we made a beeline for Etosha National Park, entering from its westernmost gate. We spent our first night at Okaukuejo and our remaining nights at Halali, our favourite of Etosha’s camps. We had such great experiences with Etosha on our Nomad overland tour, but nothing could have prepared us for all the wildlife we spotted during our days of self-driving in the park. We really got to know some of the animals during this time; their habits and schedules, which made tracking them a whole lot of fun. Being in your own vehicle you can also spend as much (or as little) time as you want with each animal encounter. During our time in Etosha we saw more animals that make sense to list, and slept each night under the stars with the calls of the wild all around us. These were also very early mornings and late returns to camp, but there can be no question that the best time for wildlife viewing is during the early morning and late evening hours. We were rewarded royally one morning when a lone leopard crossed our path. The sun just came up, and it was just the leopard and us- one of our favourite experiences for sure! After Etosha we spent a couple of nights in the Waterberg region and that took us to the end of our 15-day road trip through Namibia. We put on a staggering 4,700 kilometers in those 15 days but man… was it worth it!

Night shot of a rhino at an Etosha waterhole

Male lion at the golden hour, Etosha

Early morning encounter with our leopard

Two exhausted lionesses and six reasons why!

Another male, another golden hour

A lone lioness and acacia tree

A black-backed jackal scurries along

We caught the Windhoek to Cape Town bus a couple of days later and there in Cape Town is where we enjoyed our last six days on the African continent. After four months we had come full-circle to the city we had started our journey, and one of our favourite cities in the world. We rented a car for a couple of days to explore some of the other sights scattered around the Western Cape and fell even deeper in love with the area. There can be no doubt that our trip to Africa was epic and one we will always remember and one we will probably always want to replicate. Seven countries and four months of experiences that we will cherish for the rest of our lives. But this will not be the last we see of Africa!

The colourful surf shacks at Muizenberg beach

 

Yala and Bundala N.P.

After we were finished exploring the beaches and sights of the western and southern coasts, we headed inland (slightly) to visit a couple of Sri Lanka's spectacular national parks- Yala and Bundala. From Tangalla we caught the bus to Tissamaharama (Tissa)- a convenient base to reach the parks and a pleasant town in its own right. You knew upon arrival in Tissa that you were wedged between a couple of Sri Lanka's best parks. Mongooses and monitor lizards cross the roads among the throngs of three-wheeled rickshaws, the cries of spotted deer trump the horns of buses, kingfishers and parakeets share power line real estate, and monkeys monkey-around in the trees overhead. A short walk from our guesthouse brought you to a small lake with impressive granite outcrops off in the distance. The lake is home to crocodiles and serves as an important stopover for migratory birdlife. On the cultural side of things, Tissa hosts a lively market twice weekly (Sundays and Thursdays) where you can get your fill of delicious Sri Lankan “short eats”, and, Tissa is also home to a couple of massive 2000-year-old dagobas (stupas).

A Scene in Yala National Park

However, people come for the national parks that encircle Tissa, and we were no different. Yala is known for its prized big game such as elephants, wild bore, sambar, spotted deer, water buffalo, and with any luck, Yala remains the best place in the world to spot a leopard. Bundala is more renowned for its diverse birdlife but that's not to say that there isn't anything else lurking amongst the lakes, plains, and forests of the park.

But Yala National Park was first on our itinerary. The day before our 'safari' we hand-picked our own jeep and driver in town. Doing this affords you more control over the quality of vehicle you're getting and you can also assess your driver/guide's proficiency in both English and wildlife knowledge- but for the most part, I'm sure they are all reasonably competent. Half-day safaris in the park is by far the most popular choice but we opted for a full-day out and shared the expenses with another couple.

Our safari jeep

Right from the get-go there were animals everywhere. Peacocks by the dozens, many mongooses and monitors, lots of spotted deer, sambar deer and wild boar, and too many water buffaloes to count. The birdlife in the park was crazy too. We came across a tree at one point that had about 50 or 60 yellow hornbills in it. As well we saw eagles, storks, parakeets, an owl, and many others that I don't have the knowledge to name. Of course we saw plenty more crocodiles as well. By the day's end we probably saw at least a dozen elephants- a couple of them within a few meters distance from our jeep.

Our close encounter with an elephant

But the undeniable main attraction are the leopards. We were fortunate enough to see two. The first one was a little disappointing. Our guide and driver got the call as to where the leopard was spotted. When we arrived at the location there were many other jeeps clogging-up the road. Everyone was squinting and straining to see the cat high up on a branch in a massive tree and wondering why they were unable to see what was so obvious to the guides. Yet nobody really could. That was the only leopard sighting that most guests in the park got that day.

Up close with our leopard

The second leopard we saw came about an hour later, after all the half-day safari goers were already out of the park. Our lone jeep turned a bend in the road and there, lying in the shadow of a tree, was the leopard. We switched off the ignition and just sat there parked a few meters away and watched. The leopard watched us back. After about 10 minutes, it got up, stretched, and wondered off into the trees. We found it again a minute later up on a low branch with its eyes still fixed on us. We were the only people in the park that day to have such a personal interaction with a leopard. It was amazing.

After retreating to its tree

Regardless of the incredible array of wildlife, Yala is simply a stunning park. Even without seeing any animals, Yala is a feast for the eyes. There are so many diverse ecosystems packed into such a relatively small area: jungle, lakes, swamps, beaches, mountains, savannah, and massive granite monoliths all make up the collective Yala landscape. It was a spectacular day and definitely a highlight of our trip so far.

Birds of Bundala

The next day we took a half-day safari to Bundala National Park. The focus in this park is on the birdlife, but in addition to hundreds of birds, we saw wild boar, tonnes of grey langurs, crocodiles, and water buffalo. We even had the chance to see a few male peacocks performing their mating ritual dance- an awesome sight to see. Bundala is a gorgeous park that's worth a visit, even if you're like us- not the birder type.

The peacock dance and some grey langurs