Kalahari and the Cape Cobra

As we left Aus and started the long drive (+\- 5 hrs) back north toward the center of the country, i couldn't help but feel a little glum knowing that our trip was in the 11th hour and we'd soon be headed back to the States and back to monotony. I hadn't done much research on the last location we were headed to…I just knew it was a game ranch 'on the way back to Windhoek'. Sounded to me like a stopover for the long journey and not really a destination in itself. And also we were back to camping for these two nights. I've thoroughly enjoyed camping in Africa but they've been having exceptionally warm weather and that's just not really fabulous camping. But we're excited to see the new area as we would now be in the Kalahari region. Yep, two deserts in Namibia, the Namib and the Kalahari. We were in the Kalahari in Botswana too … it's a pretty big desert. Anyway, we arrive at Bagatelle Kalahari game ranch and are greeted by one of the owners. She used her obvious sales skills and upsold us from a campsite to a chalet. We were pretty easy since I was already tempted to ask about any vacancies so we were thrilled to get a room … and it has AC! Also, there is a fairly tame oryx in the shade near the lodge, and just outside our chalet is a very tame springbok. She has what looks like lengths of garden hose on her horns so that she doesn't skewer anyone accidentally. As we unpacked she was sniffing around in the truck and following us around – though with a few feet of buffer zone… curiosity only goes so far! We hurried to catch the evening game drive and while on the drive we mainly saw antelope, it was just nice being on a game drive and taking in the scenic landscape. They recently had rain so there was a fine carpet of light green grass on all the plains, the trees looked lush and animals well fed and watered. Nice to see in the desert! After the drive, we came back to feed the cheetah – more on that later – and then drove to a picturesque overlook where we had sundowners – gin and tonic for me, thanks – and mingled before dinner. Dinner was another event, outside in the boma with a fire crackling nearby. The food and company were wonderful. We ate near a couple from London, a family from Zimbabwe and a couple from Germany. You'll find that not many Americans – at all – come to Namibia. We hadn't met any others until today when we found out that the astronomer they have on staff is from the US – Portland Oregon in fact. After dinner he explained where the Southern Hemisphere stars began in the sky that we obviously wouldn't see in the US. We clearly saw the Milky Way, the Southern Cross and two things that would appear like almost transparent clouds in me night sky…turns out – not clouds but huge and super far away galaxies. Unreal.

Bedtime for bonzo… so we start walking the 150 yards or so to our room which is a standalone chalet. As we approach, Cameron is leading and scanning with the flashlight when I see him freeze and call me over – with obvious alarm in his tone. And there it is… A snake. A big one. Greenish yellow and long. Have I mentioned that Cameron is reeeeeeeeally afraid of snakes? He nearly vomited in Botswana 2 years ago when we just DROVE BY a black mamba at about 40mph. So here he is, eyes locked with this 4-5 foot long snake. He tells me to go run to tell someone and he stays with it with a flashlight so we know where it is. I jogged (as best as possible in flip flops) back to the boma where the owners and staff were just sitting down to their dinner. Politely interrupting I tell them of our snake dilemma and the owner, the astronomer and the owners' 14 year old son accompany me back to the scene, quizzing me along the way as to color, size, etc. I hadn't gotten but a quick glimpse before being dispatched for help so I wasn't much use. Cameron had thought maybe green mamba because of the color but when we arrived Cameron said he'd seen it flare it's hood at some other passers by headed to bed. So there you have it – a cobra. Viper. Whatever you prefer. Technically I think a Cape Cobra but I'm going to make sure when I can get google to confirm. And yep, highly venomous. Not aggressive but not great to have in an area people live. Apparently they've rarely if ever seen a snake in the camp before… And only even rarely out in the bush on game drives. These cape cobras are known for entering the sociable weavers nest – a nest that can span an entire camel thorn tree – and eat the birds and their eggs. But this one was in the wrong place at the wrong time. So the heavy artillery showed up… Unfortunately for the snake, he had to be killed. And this was, of course, the only acceptable option for Cameron. Had that not been the eventuality, we'd have packed up at 10:00pm and headed on down the road. Not for any reason other than Cameron not being sure where the snake now was and of course when it would next jump out of the bushes and attack him. The owner made quick work of it and then we all gathered a little closer around to get a better look. Man was he big. Not fat but long…. And yellow. Cameron did his best to stay calm, even getting a closer look – once it was dead, duh – and just as he was leaning in to take an iPhone photo of the deadly beast, the owner used the tong thingys to fling the snake in Cameron's direction. I've never see him move so fast or scream so loudly. Once he composed himself, the laughing ensued. It was pretty fantastic. The owner apologized profusely the next day but even Cameron thought it was funny and all was well.

Next we go on a horseback safari…can't wait! That's been on my wish list since we first went to Africa 3 years ago.

 

 

 

 

Swakopmund and Walvis Bay

We left the rugged beauty and dramatic rocky cliffs and mountains and headed west, towards the Atlantic Ocean. The landscape slowly changed and flattened our out entirely as we entered the Namib Desert. As I mentioned before, the common theme in Namibia is vast openness. The number of hours you can drive without seeing much of any civilization is staggering. We arrived at the Skeleton Coast about 80km north of Swakopmund. As we turned to head south it was ocean to the right and flat white desert to the left. We saw one shipwreck on the beach and like true tourists we stopped to take pictures of course. It wasn't one of the huge tanker ships that was old and rusted through like I hoped to see – those are further north on the skeleton coast – but it was cool nonetheless. With the introduction of GPS, fewer ships sail into the coastline. The coast is known for being very foggy so mariners thought they were plenty far from land when in truth there were running aground. The ship we saw broke loose from its anchor in a nearby bay and ran aground that way.

Swakopmund was a neat old German town on the coast and we stayed in a quaint little B&B near the south of town. We tried to hit the he ground running in Swakop and booked our Living Desert tour for the next morning. What a cool thing that was! It was just us and the guide in a sweet old Land Rover in the golden sand dunes between Swakopmund and Walvis Bay. He showed us so many plants and animals that live in the desert that I'd have never guessed were there. We saw chameleon, shovel nosed lizards, geckos, several kinds of beetles, birds, mice, skinks and a sidewinder snake. They were all amazing in their own ways and perfectly designed to live in such a harsh environment. And driving over and through the immense dunes was just awesome. We got stuck once but easily out in about 10 min 🙂 Also learned that the dunes are there because of the Benguela Current that runs up the coast of Namibia. It not only brings sand but also different minerals which is what gives the dunes differs colors sometimes …we saw black and a purplish magenta color. And the sparkles were from mica… Makes it looks like millions of tiny diamonds shining on the dunes in the sunlight. Truly beautiful – especially when standing on the top of the dunes and looking over the Atlantic Ocean and feeling the cold sea breeze from the Benguela current in the hot desert.

Keeping the day rolling we decided later that afternoon to go quad biking on the dunes. So much fun! I posted a quick clip to Facebook a few days ago and several people said it looked like a video game…. And it felt like one too!

The next day we headed to the nearby town of Walvis Bay, just about 25 min to the south of Swakopmund. It's got the major port for the area and though it's more industrialized because of that, I actually preferred it a little to Swakop. We were able to meet and make lots of new friends and the Kingdom Hall and have lots of stories and experiences to share. Such lovely, giving, hospitable and welcoming people!

In Walvis we decided to take a catamaran tour to see the local cape fur seals and the sights from the water. You'd never guess it but it was COLD the entire morning we were out there and it was pretty windy so I bundled up and shivered and sniffled most of the trip. BUT, it was so much fun! The boat captain was funny and introduced us to two cape fur seals that help themselves onto the catamaran. In fact, they have a mop handle that they clank against the railing to keep the seals off the boats at times because they can get a little excited. But Archie wake surfed behind us until he was allowed to come aboard. He let us let him, pose with him and I even got a lapful of cape fur seal. In turn, he got fish. Not a bad deal really. Seeing a seal up close and personal was awesome and unexpected… I had heard that sometimes they board the boats but didn't know I'd get a seal on my lap. Their fur is amazingly dense and when combed against the grain you can see that just the top layer is wet and he's nice and warm and dry underneath! And they have very thick coarse whiskers that flatten out – which incidentally is how circus seals balance that ball on their 'nose'! After that we were treated to a seafood tray that included local oysters that the area is known for. Yum.

We slowed our pace a little in Walvis bay… Watched the flamingos and pelicans, ate good food and drank good wine and rested up for the second half of the trip. Much needed and very nice.

Next stop, Sossusvlei and red sand dunes!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Damaraland – Twyfelfontein, Namibia

Wow, what a beautiful place. It feels quite literally like the middle of nowhere. It's difficult to describe the feeling and the isolation of the place. From Etosha we drove about 4 and a half hours – and mind you, Etosha is not what any American would call 'civilization' – and we came to a slice of Namibia that is incredibly rugged and beautiful. The main 'road' is graded gravel, winds though riverbeds, doesn't care to warn you of steep inclines or sharp turns and is all in all, wonderful. When we arrived at our campsite at Mowani Mountain Camp, we were a little befuddled since we had not camped in Africa before this. We checked in at the main lodge and they told us what campsite to go to and then we were on our own. Yikes. No electricity…but there was running water which included a toilet, shower and kitchen area with a sink. We barely made it to our campsite by sunset so we scurried to set up the first night. It worked and all but was a little hasty.

We woke up at sunrise the next morning, not having been eaten by lions, hyena or baboons so that was a good start to the day. Kidding of course … We hadn't see any animals in this area and figured it was just too inhospitable for them. Why else would they allow camping? So we got up at sunrise because the Nature Drive (aka Desert Elephant search party) left at 7. Spoiler Alert: yes, we found the desert elephants and that was Awesome! But long before that we got to see how much activity there really was in Damaraland… A lot! Turns out there are elephants, lions, hyena, cheetah, leopard, jackals, kudu, oryx, springbok, baboons, and lots of little birds, creepy crawlies, etc. We didn't see any of the predators except for a few jackal with their babies… Jackals are already pretty little guys – maybe the size of a Sheltie but skinnier…like a miniature coyote – and their pups?, kits? are tiny and so darn cute!

About 3 hours into the drive, we started seeing elephant poo and knew we were headed in the right direction. If you're tracking elephants, follow the poo. They eat plants ALL day, and A LOT of them, so you can imagine they're pretty regular shall we say. Before long we see two bulls at a waterhole and got to watch and follow them for quite a ways down the riverbed (dry as a bone!) until we found about 7-10 females. One of the ladies was heavily preggo and another had a baby with her – the guide said it about 4 months old and was apparently exhausted … it's napping antics were pretty great. Stand up, look around, sway, down on front knees, tumble sideways and then flop into napping position.

Later that day we toured the World Heritage Site of the Twfelfontein rock engravings. Twyfelfontein is an Afrikaans word meaning 'doubtful fountain' because the white settler that found these engravings came there because there was a natural spring nearby that sometimes produced enough water, sometimes not. These engravings into the granite were means of communication between the Damara tribespeople …they we're nomadic and traveled in small groups so this is essentially how they left 'notes' for each other.

That night we made our dinner at the campsite, set up the tent, drank wine and enjoyed the unbelievable tranquility of the 'middle of nowhere'. We only wished our friends were there to share it with us! We were treated to a passing thunderstorm that night at about 2am – just enough rain to get things wet but not enough to make much difference in the desert.

Oh and there's a few photos below … The odd looking plant is a Welwitschia – this one was only about 100 yrs old but there are some where we are going that are about 1500 years old. It grows very slowly and only produces two leaves that twist and fray and give it it's strange look. Ancient though!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Etosha Park

Etosha – meaning Great White Place – is a HUGE national park in Namibia and about 22% of the park is made up of the Etosha Pan which is a large flatland area that is dry most of the time but can get a little water in it when and if they get rains in the area. It's very salty/mineral-y when it does get water so the animals don't really like drinking it. There are several watering holes scattered throughout the park though and that's where the animals congregate to quench their thirst after wandering around eating all day. We are here in the wet season (summer) but it's still pretty arid and desolate. The eastern side of the park was somewhat greener but the central/western side still seems pretty uninviting for grazers. Despite that, we saw several huge herds of elephants, zebra, black faced impala, blue wildebeest, oryx (gemsbok) and springbok. It's also an added bonus that this is the time of year that most species are having their babies. The cuteness is sometimes too much to handle. We saw baby springbok, impala, wildebeest and zebra. We were really hoping to see somebody dropping their babies but that may have been too much to ask. We did see a zebra that was still wet from just being born though. And at our first lodge at Etosha there was a herd of impala that one day had one baby in the herd and the next day had over 15! Their little bodies on spindles for legs was just adorable… And they would spring and hop and frolic all over the place. This is called 'pronking' and was both funny and seriously cute!

Being in Etosha in low season (summer/wet) has some advantages like the above mentioned babies as well as not having a ton of people all crowded around trying to see the same animals at the watering holes. The downsides: Supposedly the animals are harder to find because there is more water available, it's hot. But really, if you're used to Texas summers like we are, this isn't bad at all. It's actually raining right now … A little thunderstorm is passing through and it feels pretty grand.

Tonight is the last night in Etosha area and we are headed into a region called Damaraland tomorrow. That will be our first spot of camping (rooftop tent on the 4×4 style) so that's both exciting and brings me a little bit of anxiety. Pretty sure it'll be amazing but the unknown always puts those good little butterflies in my stomach. While we are there we may go try to find the desert elephants… Pretty unique I'm told. Hope we find them. 🙂

Here are a few snaps of some Etosha wildlife… Including an X-rated lion shot.

 

Cheetah Conservation – Otjiwarongo, Namibia

It's our 3rd day in Namibia and I'm so happy to have gotten to see cheetah! From the time I was a little kid, whenever anyone would ask my favorite animal I would answer either horse or cheetah depending on the day. Yeah, horses are pretty cool and all but there's something about the cheetah that has always captured my attention and adoration. Obviously the rarity of them but I think it's also their unusual personality. They're still cats and thereby quite full of themselves but they're definitely the underdog of the feline species (and I am a sucker for an underdog). But, really it's just their speed that gets them by… They're not strong, they're not fighters, they are timid and pretty much get pushed around by everyone else. But who can resist those gorgeous spots, their lithe, graceful bodies and just knowing that you're looking at the fastest land animal? With all our technology, we have a hard time making a machine that can beat a cheetah at 0-60. Here's to you my cheetah friends! You gorgeous things you!

Cheetah tidbits:

+ Only about 10,000 cheetah remain and roughly 4,500 of those are in Namibia making it the country with the highest cheetah population

+ Cheetahs are the lowest ranking feline predator – they often lose their hard earned meal to lion, leopard and hyena. In fact, if anyone challenges them, they don't fight – just immediately give up their dinner.

+ Cheetah moms can have litters of up to four or five cubs but typically only one, if any, survive to adulthood

+ Cheetahs are prone to various genetic disorders because they have a very shallow gene pool.

+ Cheetahs need their prey to be running because they hunt by tripping their target at full speed causing them to fall and allowing the cheetah to suffocate them. They don't have the strength of lion or leopard that can bring down an animal with brute strength.

Cheetah populations were in severe decline because of being killed by farmers. Since cheetah hunt in the day (unlike nearly all other predators) farmers saw a dead goat and saw a cheetah and assumed they were the problem and shot them on sight. Now, through education and cooperative farming techniques, cheetah and farmers are living together peacefully. One major factor in this is the use of Anatolian Shepherds. These dogs live with the flocks and guard them from predators, including cheetah. The Cheetah Conservation Fund that we visited breeds these dogs and has placed over 450 of them with farmers and cannot keep up with the demand for them. There's currently a 2 year waiting list!

 

 

Arrived in Namibia

After long two long travel legs and a whirlwind tour of London, we arrived this evening in Windhoek, Namibia! We will pick up the 4×4 tomorrow first thing and head out on our trek across Namibia.

Since we only just arrived at 5pm we haven't seen much but what we have seen I think will be a common thread through the trip. Vast open spaces. The view from the plane window was nothing but open grasslands with low scrub bushes and mopane trees. A few low mountain ranges can be seen in the distance but what really strikes you is the amount of untouched rugged terrain with a few dry sandy riverbeds weaving their way to who knows where.

I can't wait to get on the road tomorrow …