Africa Overland Truck Safari 2009

My third, and longest, trip to Africa occurred in 2009, when I spent a month visiting Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa. I joined a bunch of strangers on an overland truck safari tour with the travel company Africa-in-Focus. Accommodation for most of trip was in a small tent, whilst transport was in a bumpy, dusty truck-bus. Each day, the group were required to assist with chores around camp. The trade-off was a more affordable vacation in Africa.

The Long and Tiring Journey to Zambia

My journey began on a Wednesday evening in August 2009, with a British Airways overnight flight from Bermuda to Gatwick, London. Three noisy teenagers in the row behind me ensured that I got very little sleep. An hour on the Gatwick Express bus got me to Heathrow Airport, arriving about 9.00am on Thursday morning. My next flight was scheduled to leave about 7.00pm and I was told that I could not check my luggage until 4.00pm. Facing a long wait at the airport and an even longer flight, I opted to check into the Sofitel Hotel at the airport for a ‘day-rate’. This allowed me to get a comfortable 4-hours of sleep, get up for lunch and then get a further 1-hour of sleep before checking out around 5.00pm. This really helped me to cope with a very long travel schedule – I would have been like a zombie without that sleep.

About 7.00pm, I departed Heathrow on an overnight British Airways flight to Johannesburg, South Africa. The flight was full and I was unable to get much sleep. I arrived at Johannesburg about 7.50am on Friday morning and had to wait about three hours for my next flight to Livingstone, Zambia. I was in business class for the final leg and had an entire row of 3 seats to myself – but the fixed arm rests between seats were prevented me from laying down for a nap!

I arrived at Livingstone Airport about 1.10pm (6.10pm Bermuda time), about 46 hours after leaving Bermuda, with only the five hours of sleep in the Heathrow Airport hotel. Knowing that I planned to cross into Zimbabwe and return to Zambia, I opted for the multi-entry visa ($80), rather than the single entry visa ($50). After clearing Immigration, I was soon in a taxi and heading to the Waterfront Hotel in Livingstone.

The Waterfront Hotel is situated on the bank of the Zambezi River and has a number of chalet-type bungalows, in addition to a camp-site. I had planned the trip so that I would arrive in Zambia a couple of days before the Africa in Focus tour commenced, so I was booked into a chalet room for the first two nights. The room was clean and comfortable, but I soon noticed the huge mosquitoes on the walls and ceiling. Large gaps in the doors gave the mozzies free and easy access! Thankfully the beds had mosquito nets over them.

After the long flights, I was exhausted and went straight to bed. I awoke about 4.00pm to the soothing sounds of African drumming coming from the neighbouring hotel. I headed to the hotel bar and enjoyed my first Mosi beer, as I sat and soaked in the view over the Zambezi River. It was a very pleasant welcome back to Africa! I enjoyed the hotel’s 3-course buffet dinner and another Mosi beer, before returning to my room at 8.00pm to get some more sleep.

A Walk into Zimbabwe

I woke at 7.15am, fully refreshed and headed to the dining area for some breakfast. I was a little surprised to find that it was a full English-style breakfast (bacon, sausage, eggs, baked beans, tomatoes, onions) but it was delicious and set me up nicely for the day to come. I was heading to Zimbabwe!

I took a taxi from the hotel to the Falls Bridge. The taxi driver took me as far as he was permitted and dropped me off just before the first check-point. We agreed that he would pick me up at the same place at 6.00pm and I set off to walk across the bridge and into Zimbabwe. I paid for a Zimbabwean visa at the border ($55US) and continued the walk across. The Victoria Falls Bridge was completed in 1905 and became a major transport route for road and rail traffic. It is now also a popular spot for bungee jumping. I paused and watched a few of the jumpers but had no inclination at all to try it myself.

After crossing the bridge, I was soon at the entrance to the Victoria Falls Park. After standing in line for a short time, I paid my US$20 entry fee and headed to the various viewing areas. The Falls lived up to my expectations and were simply stunning! The local indigenous name is ‘Mosi-oa Tunya’ which means ‘Smoke that Thunders’ and it is a very apt name. The falling water makes a thunderous sound and a constant mist rises up from the valley below, like smoke, creating rainbows. I had only taken my small point-and-shoot camera that day, as I didn’t want to carry my heavy SLR all day. I’m glad that I did, as the mist at many of the viewing areas coated everything. I wouldn’t have wanted to expose my SLR to all that moisture.

The area around the falls is known to have been inhabited for about three million years. In the mid-19th century, members of the Makololo tribe took British explorer David Livingstone to see the falls in dugout canoes. He was the first European to lay eyes on them, and in an arrogance that was typical of colonialists of the era, he promptly named them after Queen Victoria. The falls are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. They are twice as high as the Niagara Falls and are considered to be the largest waterfall in the world. They are also listed as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.

I left the Falls and walked over to the craft stalls opposite the entrance. They had a variety of carvings and trinkets for sale but the quality was poor. I already had a collection of stone sculptures at home, by some of the Shona Master Fine Artists of Zimbabwe, so I was hoping to find a good quality piece to add to my collection. I’d been advised to visit the Victoria Falls Hotel, where there is a gallery of Shona artwork on display. After taking some directions, I headed off on a short walk along the main road until I found the turn-off to the hotel.

The Victoria Falls Hotel is an old colonial style place that, in some ways, reminded me of the Raffles Hotel in Singapore. I walked through the hotel and came out onto the rear lawned area, with its stunning elevated views over the surrounding countryside, with the Falls Bridge in the centre of the panorama. Beautiful! I took a walk around the open-air art gallery (called Stone Dynamics) but most of the pieces were abstracts and were expensive. I took a table for lunch on the shaded terrace, continuing to enjoy the great vista, while I ate a delicious meal that included crocodile tail and a couple of glasses of red wine. What a wonderful way to spend the afternoon!  I highly recommend a lunch visit here, for anyone visiting the Falls.

I left the hotel and continued walking the short distance into the town of Victoria Falls.  The main road of the town is lined with small gift shops catering to tourists. I spent some time visiting the stores and made a couple of purchases. I then stopped at an open-air display of large stone sculptures. It was whilst I was looking at the art work that I was approached by a ‘old’ gentleman, who actually turned out to be about my age!!  He offered to take me to the ‘craft market’ where stone sculptures could be purchased. Initially skeptical and on guard, I agreed to follow him along a side street. In a short time, we came across rows and rows of stalls where men were trying to sell a variety of arts and crafts. I had wanted to find some Shona sculptures and this place was absolutely full of them. Amazingly, it seemed like I was the only tourist in the market that day, and everyone wanted me to buy something from them.

I walked from shop to shop, and from stall to stall, casually looking to see who had the good quality stone sculptures. Much of what was on offer was of poor quality, but I did find one shop and one stall where the quality seemed much better. The shop had pieces by artists whose names I recognised. The initial asking prices were hugely inflated, but I was able to haggle and finally picked up a couple of pieces for about US$100 each (a real bargain compared to prices in Bermuda). My favourite piece was a Nanga (traditional healer) head, sculpted in Butter Jade by Amon Chikumbirike – I already had a piece in my collection by Amon’s uncle, Jacob Chikumbirike. In addition, I picked up a Rhino in black serpentine stone.

I now had two pieces of stone sculptures, each weighing about 13lbs (6kg), and had quite a walk to the border-post on the bridge.  My friendly guide sensed a good tip was coming and offered to carry both items to the border for me. Part way there I felt guilty and took one of the pieces from him, so that we each carried one piece. He helped to get me through the checkpoints and the questions by the officials posted there, about what we were carrying. Along the way, he told a tale of why he needed a large amount of money to pay his rent for the month! He received a nice tip (but not what he claimed to need for a month’s rent) and we parted ways. He was a nice ‘old’ man who had found a niche for himself, competing against the more aggressive young men, who accosted us at every turn trying to sell copper bracelets. In fact, one of those young men followed me all the way to the Zambian border, begging me to buy some bracelets from him. The closer we got to the border, the lower the asking price became.

As promised, my taxi driver was waiting for me on the Zambian side of the bridge and I was soon back at the Waterfront Hotel for a buffet dinner and a couple of beers. It had been a terrific first full day in Africa and I was so glad that I’d made the trip across the bridge to Zimbabwe.

The Start of the Southern Cross Tour

The following day marked the official start of the Southern Cross Tour with Africa-in-Focus, so my first task after breakfast was to find the tour group. A notice on the hotel message board told me where to look for them, so I soon found them and the turquoise truck in the camp-site.  After a few brief introductions, I headed back to the hotel room to move my luggage to the camp-site and check out of the hotel. It would be mainly tent-living from now on!

I was teamed up with Rob Charlton, from England.  We would be sharing a small tent for the rest of the trip – fortunately we got along well. I was also given keys to the truck and I stowed away my gear in one of the truck’s storage compartments. We were supposed to have a group meeting at 1.30pm, but two of the group had not yet arrived, so the meeting was put back to 6.00pm. With time to kill until the meeting, a few of us headed into Livingstone after lunch to visit the museum and then go to the supermarket to buy some beers

After the 6.00pm orientation meeting, we ate dinner and had a few beers around the camp-fire before heading for the tent at 9.00pm. This was the start of what would become a pattern – in bed by about 9.00pm and often up in the morning about 5.30am.  Our time in Zambia would be free-time with only a boat cruise as an organised activity.

Zambezi River Cruise

The temperature was a little cool when I emerged from my sleeping bag in the morning. The cold showers were more brutal! It turned out that one of the shower blocks only had cold water and that just happnd to be the one I had used.

This was essentially a free day with only an afternoon boat cruise scheduled.  I headed into Livingstone to do some shopping, with the main objective being to find some suitable wrapping material that would keep my
stone sculptures safe, on the long and bumpy drive to South Africa.  I finally found a shop that sold bubble wrap. A few minutes later I found a hardware store that sold pieces of dense foam (probably for chair cushions) and bought two pieces.

Back at the camp-site I spent the afternoon carving out relief shapes of the two sculptures in the foam so that I could sandwich the sculptures between the two pieces of foam for the long journey.

At 4.30pm we took a boat cruise from the Waterfront Hotel along the Zambezi River. It was a nice cruise with an open bar and food provided. Whilst on this cruise my Sony point-and-shoot camera became defective. The lens became stuck part way out so it couldn’t take pictures (could it have been caused by all the moisture at Victoria Falls?). Fortunately, I had my Canon 50D digital SLR as my primary camera.  Several other peoples’ cameras ‘broke down’ during the trip, so having a back-up camera is definitely a good idea.

Close Encounters with Lions and Elephants

This was another free day on the tour schedule but I had booked a couple of experiences that would make it a very memorable day. In the afternoon, I would get to pet a lion and walk behind it holding its tail. But first, there would be an elephant-back safari with Zambezi Elephant Trails.

The elephant tour started a 6.15am, as the company picked up participants from various hotels and then drove us all to the elephant facility. The group of elephants were brought out by their handlers and we were each assigned an elephant to ride (two persons per elephant). I was assigned to Bop, the largest
male in the group.  We rode the elephants in the bush for about one hour and saw some impala and bushbuck along the way. Following the ride we had the opportunity to interact with ‘our’ elephant and to feed him some pellets. We ate a full English-style breakfast, whilst the tour group put together a DVD of the elephant ride to show to us, with the option to buy a copy. We were then driven back to our hotels, arriving about 11.00am.

In the afternoon, I headed out for my second experience of the day – this time Walking with Lions!  Again, we were driven to the facility – next to the elephant safari and owned by the same company (at that time) – where we were given a safety briefing on how we should interact with the lions. We were also told how the facility was working on a phased programme to return the lions to the wild. After the briefing we headed out on foot and soon met our two lions – two young females about 2 years old.

This facility is now being operated under the name Lion Encounter. The programme seeks to take cubs born in captivity and gradually acclimatise them for release into the wild, thereby increasing the dwindling wild lion populations. They start with cubs which are taken on walks in the bush to help them become familiar with their natural surroundings. At 18 months to 2½ years of age, human contact is removed and they are given the opportunity to hone their hunting skills by taking part in night and day encounters in a safe and secure environment (fenced off, no humans). The lions are released in a pride, into a large enclosure where they can start to live as a wild pride, hunting and fending for themselves. They are closely monitored for research purposes; there is no human contact or intervention. The pride is relocated to a larger area, where they will spend the rest of their lives. This area is big enough to have many different species in it, including competitive ones. In this stage, the pride breeds cubs which will experience no human intervention. The cubs born and raised by the pride in a totally natural environment can, when old enough, be relocated into those areas of Africa that need them.

Whilst amongst the lions, we were all provided with a long stick. We would be told when it was deemed safe to get closer to the lions. That could only be done when the lions were laying down and were relaxed. At those times, the guide would indicate that one person at a time could approach, and only from behind. Whilst petting the lion’s rear quarters, we would have to keep an eye on its head. If it turned towards us, we were told to use the stick to scratch on the ground, thereby distracting the lion momentarily so that we could retreat to a safer distance. We were reminded that whilst the lions were accustomed to being amongst humans, they were not pets and were capable of attacking. Simply going for a walk with the lions was an amazing experience, but walking up behind and petting one was quite a thrill.

Another thrilling moment was when some of got to hold onto a lion’s tail whilst walking behind them. Again, this was only possible when the guide indicated it was safe, and it was only for a brief time. I did get to experience holding the lion’s tail, but it happened so quickly that I was unable to hand off my camera to someone to capture the moment for me. I did get a shot of one of the other participants holding the tail though. There were lots of opportunities for close-up photographs of the lions and the experience was well worth the cost of the activity (the combined elephant and lion activities cost a total of US$230).

That evening at the campsite, we ate dinner and were placed into work groups for the rest of the tour. As there were 16 people on the tour, we were split into four groups of 3 and one group of 4. The five-day work rotation schedule consisted of washing dishes, cleaning the truck, food preparation, first option for use of the company laptop and a free day. We had an onboard chef who would do the cooking, but those on prep duty would clean and chop vegetables, to help the chef. Those on dishwashing duty cleaned up after the meals. The truck cleaning team cleaned the interior of the truck once per day, usually before dinner. This was a necessity as it often got covered with dust and dirt during the day. In addition to our chef, the three-man crew included a driver and a tour guide (who also provided photography workshops and tips).

Zambia to Botswana – Chobe Safari Lodge

We were up at 6.15am to get showered, pack up our gear and take down the tents prior to an 8.00am breakfast. After breakfast and washing the dishes, we departed the Waterfront Hotel camp-site, heading to Botswana. At last, the travelling part of the tour was underway!

The border crossing into Botswana was uneventful. Once we had cleared Botswana Immigration, the truck was placed onto a ferry to cross the river. We arrived at the Chobe Safari Lodge in Kasane about 1.00pm, having covered 98km in 4 hours. Several of us then spent a couple of hours browsing around the shops that are a short walk from the Lodge.

The Chobe Safari Lodge is a very nice facility on the bank of the Chobe River.  In addition to the camp-site, it has lodge-rooms and an expansive restaurant and deck that overlook the river.  We saw a large group of Striped Mongoose that appear to live on the property and we even had a pair of warthogs walk through the centre of our camp-site.

Just after crossing into Botswana, the crew had visited a butcher and purchased some fresh meat, so it was roast beef for dinner. Delicious camp cooking!

Chobe Game Drive and River Cruise

We were remaining at the camp site for another night, so there was no need to pack up the tents. But we still needed to be up at 5.00am, to be collected at 6.15am for an early morning game drive in the Chobe Game Reserve. It was a cold morning. I was wearing a shirt, a fleece and a jacket and was still feeling the cold on the drive in open-top Toyota Land Cruisers. Fortunately, the drivers handed out warm blankets before we left the hotel.

The game drive in Chobe was quite disappointing. We had heard so much about the huge herds of elephants in Chobe, but the only elephant that we saw was a single specimen on the roadside, after we left the park. We did get to see a group of lions and some impala, kudu, waterbuck and steenbok – some from a distance. The highlight of the drive were great photo opportunities for a Lilac Breasted Roller and a group of blue Starlings.

Following the game drive we had breakfast back at the camp-site and the rest of the morning was free-time – an opportunity to hand-wash some laundry and attend a photography workshop

After lunch, we had a boat cruise along the Chobe River that made up for the disappointing morning game drive, as there were lots of animals to be seen and plenty of photo opportunities. Game viewing included elephants, hippos, kudu, giraffe, red lechwe, crocodiles and a variety of birds. The cruise ended with a beautiful sunset.

11 Hours Drive to Audi Camp

We were up early at 5.00am, to break down the tents and stow our gear. Breakfast was at 6.00am and we departed camp at 7.00am, for a long day on the road. The drive through Botswana covered 627km and took 11 hours, including a lunch stop. We arrived at the Audi Camp, located alongside the Thamalakane River, at 5.00pm.

We set up camp and helped with food preparation for a spaghetti carbonara dinner, prepared by fellow tour members Marco and Carolina (from Italy). The camp-site had a wi-fi connection, so there was an opportunity to catch up on e-mails, before trying to get some sleep whilst the neighbouring campers sang loudly and generally made a lot of noise!

Towards the Okavango Delta

Once again, we were up at 5.00am to take down the tents and pack our gear. However, we could only pack a minimal amount of gear, as we were heading into the Okavango Delta on boats, and we would be away from our truck for three nights.

A 6.00am breakfast was followed by a 7.00am departure to the nearby town of Maun. Several of the group had booked an optional small aircraft flight over the Delta, from Maun Airport. Whilst they were enjoying their flight, the rest of us took advantage of the gift stores located opposite the airport, as well as a nearby Internet cafe.

We departed Maun Airport about 11.00am for a 300km drive, stopping along the way to pick up some lunch. We drove to ‘Etsha 13’ village, where our truck would be parked for the next three days. Tents, mattresses, bags of gear and bottles of drinking water were all unloaded and transferred to a local truck for the 10km drive down a sandy track, arriving at Guma Lagoon Camp around 4.00pm.

We unloaded the truck, took a quick tour of the camp and then set up the tents. By 5.30pm we were sitting on the deck as daylight began to fade, overlooking the Okavango Delta with a couple of beers. What a beautiful, serene location!

The next morning, Rob was still not in the tent. It turned out that he had got lost when returning from the bar. Unable to find the correct tent, he spent the night sleeping on a woodpile in a nearby enclosure!

Mokoro Boats into the Okavango Delta and Overnight on an Island

We were up early to pack our limited supplies and take down the tents. Following breakfast at Guma Lagoon Camp, we loaded the gear onto motorboats for the initial journey to an island in the Delta.

The motorboats took us through the wider channels, past floating papyrus beds, until we reached a mokoro station on one of the islands. The powered boats couldn’t go further, so we transferred to mokoro canoes – two per canoe plus a local boatman. As we sat back to enjoy the ride, the boatmen propelled us through the Delta using long poles. The mokoro ride lasted 1.5 to 2 hours, and delivered us to the island that would be our home for the night. This would be camping in its true form – no electricity, no running water, no bar and no flushing toilets. The ‘bathroom’ consisted of a plastic formed toilet over a hole in the ground, surrounded by bushes. A strategically placed toilet roll signalled to others that someone was using the ‘bathroom’

The tents were soon pitched and we had lunch. At 2.30pm some of the group headed out for a swim, whilst the rest took a guided walk around the island. We saw a couple of elephants in the distance and a Fish Eagle on its nest but, all in all, there wasn’t much game to see.

At 4.30pm we went back out on the mokoros hoping to view some hippos. We did find a handful of hippos but they were too far away for photography. We returned to camp for dinner – chicken stew with stuffed pumpkin. After dinner we had a few beers around the camp-fire and even toasted some marshmallows. By 9.00pm I was in the tent for the night.

Morning Game Walk and Back to the Mainland

We took a short (7.00am) mokoro ride to a neighbouring island for a morning game walk. We spotted a single elephant who began to pay us too much attention as he came in our direction!  We stood still for a couple of nervous minutes until the elephant lost interest and turned away. We saw a couple more eagles but, again, there was little in the way of game to see. Considering all of the effort that had been taken to get there, the famed Okavango Delta had been quite a disappointment. With the exception of the boat cruise on the Chobe River, wildlife had been rather scarce to that point.

We were back in camp by 9.30am and had brunch about 10.00am. The tents and gear were packed by 11.45am and we departed on the two-hour mokoro ride back to the mokoro station. The weather was very hot with the sun beating down. I covered myself with a jacket and was able to shuffle down into the canoe for a nap. Once at the mokoro camp all of the gear was unloaded and we waited until 2.00pm for the motorboats to arrive. The motorboats transferred us back to Guma Lagoon Camp for our last night in Botswana.

Although we were off the island, we were still living with the limited amount of gear that we had brought with us from the truck. But at least we were in a camp that had a bar and showers!  We had a delicious barbecue meal for dinner, but I was struggling with a stomach illness that began whilst we were on the island – thank goodness we now had a toilet that was more than a hole in the ground!

Botswana to Namibia

We were up at 6.15am, to pack the tents away for an 8.00am breakfast. We left camp about 9.00am and headed out on the bumpy ride to Etsha 13 village, to be reunited with the truck.

After getting all of our gear stowed on the truck, we headed towards Namibia, with a stop along the way for a roadside lunch before reaching the border crossing. The crossing was very orderly, with only officials being present (no hordes of money changers or people selling items, as was seen at the Zambia/Botswana border).

After crossing the border we took a fortuitous wrong turn that placed us in the Caprivi Game Park. We were able to view Sable antelope, impala and hippos before getting back on track to our destination for the night – Ngepi Camp on the banks of the Kavango River. The journey of 148km from Etsha 13 to Ngepi took 4.5 hours.

A few of our group expressed an interest in upgrading to a bush-hut or a tree-house at Ngepi Camp, but only one tree-house was available. The others balked at the $50US upgrade fee, but I gladly took the upgrade. I was definitely ready for a private room with my own bathroom, a comfortable bed and a power-point for charging batteries.

The tree-house that I occupied was close to the river and was very comfortable – certainly worth the cost of the upgrade. I enjoyed laying in the hammock watching the river and reading a book.  I was also visited by several colourful birds. The camp generator started up at 6.00pm, so I was able to charge up my laptop, upload photos and GPS tracks, and charge batteries. The generator only runs until about midnight though – or when the bar closes. After the lights went out, I listened to the hippos in the river nearby and enjoyed the ambience. After a few days with a stomach bug, a night in the tree-house certainly raised my spirits and was a pick-me-up for the coming days.

Ngepi Camp was an interesting venue, with quirky themes for the bathroom facilities, such as “View with a Loo” and “Toilet of Eden”. There was also a swimming cage in the river, that protected bathers from hippos and crocs!

Etosha National Park

I had to be up at 4.15am and out of my tree-house for a 5.00am departure.  I would have liked to have stayed longer, but we were heading to Etosha National Park and the promise of lots of game viewing.

We stopped en-route for a roadside breakfast and then stopped for 90 minutes at the town of Grootfontein. This allowed us to change money into Namibian dollars, visit an Internet cafe and buy some cooked food from the local supermarket for lunch.

We arrived at the Etosha National Park about 2.00pm and did a short game drive before reaching our camp site (a total of 644km). This was the game viewing I had been waiting for! We were soon spotting game every hundred meres or so, including zebra, kudu, black-faced impala, giraffe, springbok and wildebeest. A great start to our visit to Etosha.

We headed to the Namutoni Camp where we pitched the tents. Upgrades to chalet rooms were available but cost $250US per night, as they included three meals per day. We had the opportunity swim in the camp pool, visit the camp water-hole for more game viewing, or use the power supply to charge batteries and upload photos. An optional night game drive was also available for US$100.

After dinner I visited the camp’s floodlit water-hole, but the only animals present were a couple of jackals. I went to bed at 9.00pm but could hear the noises of jackals rummaging through items in the camp-site. We had been warned not to leave shoes or other items outside the tents, as the jackals will run off with them!

More Game Viewing in Etosha

At 6.15am we headed out for another game drive. We were soon sighting giraffe, impala, springbok, wildebeest and jackals. We then came across a couple of male lions, laying quite close to the road, just begging to be photographed. We returned to camp about 9.30am, in time for a 10.00am brunch.

After brunch we had some free time, so I visited the camp’s jewellery shop (some nice stuff) and then headed to the water-hole to update my journal, whilst watching for game. It was nice to be able to just sit there and let the animals come to us. There were visiting groups of zebra, wildebeest, springbok and gemsbok.

We headed out on another game drive about 3,30pm with lots more game being seen. Amongst the sightings were giraffe drinking at a waterhole, some dik-dik and steenbok and some ostriches. The camp gates are closed at 5.45pm so we headed back and made it with only ten minutes to spare.   I uploaded more photos to my laptop, ate dinner and was in bed by about 8.15pm.

From Namutoni Camp to Halali Camp

We departed Namutoni Camp at 6.15am and enjoyed a game drive through Etosha National Park, en-route to our next camp-site. We saw the usual array of wildlife but also saw a pair of lionesses at a water-hole, as well as some hartebeest and another ostrich.

We arrived at Halali camp site about 10.45am and visited the tourist shop whilst registration was taking place. No upgrades were available, as all cabins were full. We had the tents set up by 11.30am so we headed to the camp’s water-hole until lunch-time. Whilst we were there, the water-hole was visited by impala, springbok, hartebeest, zebra and a group of kudu – a very impressive male Kudu with his harem of females.

We took another game drive at 3.00pm, although half of the group opted to stay in camp. Game was relatively sparse on this drive but we observed impala, springbok, hartebeest, giraffe, zebra, steenbok, ostrich and a single hyena. We also drove out onto the Etosha salt pan to take a few photos.

We got back to camp about 5.40pm and headed straight to the water-hole, as we’d heard that a rhino makes a daily appearance around 6.00pm. On arrival at 5.50pm there were already a rhino at the water-hole and three more arrived about 6.00pm. Unfortunately, the lighting wasn’t good enough for decent photographs.

We took a break for dinner and then went straight back to the water-hole at 8.00pm. We had been told that a leopard has been seen there after 8.00pm some nights. On arrival at the flood-lit water-hole, there were three lions drinking. After the lions left, there were several groups of rhinos and a group of ten hyenas. I figured something was going to get killed that night! The night-time game viewing at the water hole was excellent, but it was unfortunate that many of the spectators constantly made noises or used flash photography. Despite three rhinos still being at the water-hole, I left about 8.45pm to get some sleep, as we had another early departure the next morning.

Camp Otjitotongwe Cheetah Guestfarm

We had another early start to take down the tents and depart camp at 6.15am. We did a game drive en-route to our next destination, but the wildlife was sparse compared to other drives. We made a brief stop at another camp for some souvenir shopping, before exiting Etosha National Park.

En-route, we stopped at the small town of Outjo for a 1.5 hour lunch break. This town had some good souvenir shops, including several that sold springbok hides, warthog tusks, etc. Apparently the area has an active game hunting trade and the animal hides are the by-product of that hunting. Following our lunch break, we continued on to our destination for the night, the Camp Otjitotongwe Cheetah Guestfarm. Total driving distance for the day was 333km.

Upon arrival at the cheetah farm we were allowed into an enclosure where we were able to interact with some tame cheetahs – two adults and a 4-month old cub. We were able to pet the cheetahs and take some photos. Then it was off to the camping area to set up our tents.

After setting up the tents, we went to the camp-site bar to await the start of a cheetah drive. The Camp Otjitotongwe Cheetah Guestfarm presents something of a contradiction. Whilst positioning itself as a cheetah conservation facility, its bar is decorated with elephant ears and trunk, as well as a novelty brandy dispenser made from the rear end of a warthog. The display of animal parts seems to be at odds with the conservation theme.

In the late afternoon, we were taken into the main enclosure, where the ‘semi-wild’ cheetahs live. We were standing in the rear of some open-top jeeps as we were driven around the large enclosure. Before long, we began to see cheetahs that obviously knew they were about to be fed.  When the jeeps stopped, the cheetahs gathered and large chunks of donkey meat were thrown out to them. As each cheetah grabbed a piece of meat, it ran off into the bush to eat. We were able to get close-up photographs of cheetahs, but it lacked the excitement of spotting them in the wild. The experience felt very commercialised – probably because it was!

We were back in camp by 5.45pm and had dinner at 7.00pm. The camp site was very basic with only one toilet/shower for men and one for women. There was also no electricity. Dinner was stir-fried kudu meat – very delicious! After dinner, one of the group hooked up his laptop to the truck’s speakers and we watched a comedy show for some entertainment.

Himba Village

After an 8.00am breakfast, we prepared to depart camp at 9.00am. As we were leaving the camp-site we saw a tame two-year old giraffe at the camp owner’s home, so we stopped briefly to take photos and to pet it.  We then headed out to our next destination.

About 1.30pm, we arrived at the Kisenje Village Rest Stop near to Opuwo (driving distance 295km). This rest stop is managed by the local people in the village, so staying there helps to support the local community. We had enough time to set up the tents before leaving at 2.50pm, to pick up our Himba contact, called Queen Elizabeth. With the Queen in our truck, we headed to the Himba village for a pre-arranged visit. The tour leaders had purchased an assortment of items for the chief (including food and tobacco) and we also took along a large quantity of fresh drinking water for the village. We were told that they usually have to walk 30km to a place where they dig for water. They have to wait up to four hours for the water to appear so that they can collect, it after which they walk back 30km carrying the muddy water. I’m sure that the many gallons of clean fresh water that we donated were very welcome.

Upon our arrival at the Himba village, we discovered that the chief was out tending to his cattle, so would not be available to welcome us. Instead, we were officially welcomed by one of his wives. Our gifts were handed over and then all of the women and the girls from the village came out to pose for photographs, and to sing and dance. We were given a tour of the village and were welcomed into the chief’s hut, where one of his wives demonstrated some of the items therein.

We were told that water is too precious to the Himba to be used for bathing, so they never wash with water. Instead, they cover themselves with a mixture of cow fat and ochre. The chief’s wife showed us how this is done. When the women are expecting male company, they burn wood from the perfume tree and position the burning ember so that the smoke wafts over their body, as a natural deodorant. This was also demonstrated – including sitting over the smoking embers so that all body parts were smelling like perfume!

I was interested in the different hairstyles, particularly noticing that the younger girls had naturally coloured hair that was braided towards the front. I was told that girls wear their hair in that style until they reach puberty. Upon reaching puberty, they apply the fat and ochre to their hair and adopt the style with long braids hanging down. Some of the ladies decorated their hair with a variety of items, including pieces of plastic bags. We were told that the girls are usually married and pregnant by 14 years of age.

None of the Himba children go to school. The Namibian Government is now providing financial support to help the Himba maintain their traditional way of life, recognising their cultural importance to Namibia.

This visit was one of the highlights of the whole trip for me. Whilst I absolutely loved the wildlife, having the opportunity to visit the Himba people in one of their villages was truly amazing. I appreciated that we got to see cultural aspects of Africa and were not solely focussed on animals.

Dusty Drive to Camp Xaragu

We were up at 5.30am to take down the tents. Everything had to be packed into plastic bags in preparation for the dust that we would soon encounter, driving south through Namibia. I had taken a box of jumbo size zip-lock bags that came in very handy for sealing items of clothing inside my luggage. A plastic trash bag was then placed over the outside of the luggage in an attempt to keep the dust at bay. Even though the luggage would be stowed in lockers on the side of the truck, the dust gets inside the lockers and everywhgere else. After a 6.30am breakfast we departed camp at 7.00am.

It was a long, bumpy and dusty ride as the roads were all loose gravel over mountainous terrain. We had to keep the truck windows closed for the first few hours, due to the clouds of dust being kicked up by the truck. After a few hours though, it was just too hot to keep the windows closed, so we had to crack them open, even though that meant dust came inside the truck (much to the annoyance of some of the group).  We stopped at the roadside about 11.45am for a brief lunch, before continuing on the journey.

We arrived at the Camp Xaragu camp-site about 3.00pm, having made good time over a distance of 323km. There were three ‘tented chalets’ available as upgrades, at a cost of US$90 for a double or US$80 for a single. They were basically large tents on a solid base, with a personal shower and beds. I may have been tempted if they had a power supply but they didn’t – so I stayed with the tent.

Some water and a beer in the bar were very welcome after a long dusty drive. Unfortunately, the experience was soured by an exchange that I witnessed between the elderly white female owner of the facility and a black female staff member. The owner’s conduct was rude, domineering and outright disrespectful and I instantly thought of apartheid-era South Africa. It was disgraceful conduct and I would not stay at this camp-site again, based on that observation!

The camp site had no electricity and, by morning, there was no water in the entire camp. Apparently, a constantly running toilet had caused the water tank to run dry.

Drive to Brandberg

We departed Camp Xaragu about 7.00am and headed to our next destination. There was less dust on the road than the previous day but it seemed hotter!

We stopped after about a half-hour, to visit the rock carvings at Twyfelfontein, Namibia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site. We had a guided tour of the 4,000 year old rock carvings and then hit the road again, towards the next camp-site.