Namibia & Botswana 2016 – 2017
By David Kinrade
As always when planning our next big trip, we pretty much left it all to Fred. He has a good idea of what he wants to see and do, and this usually corresponds well with what the rest of us want from the trip. For this mammoth trip to Namibia and Botswana, as it was my first time, I had one or two things that I wanted to do that the others had already done. Also, Fred had plans for an adventurous week near the start of the journey.
My requirements were simple: I wanted to see the sand dunes at Sossusvlei and also, as we were going so close anyway, I wanted to go and see Victoria Falls. These things were quite easy to arrange, and a schedule was duly organised that was an epic 37 days long. We would travel across Namibia then into Botswana for Christmas and back into Namibia to return home in the new year.
Our schedule looked something roughly like this: -
Week 1: Travel down to Sesriem for a dawn trip to Sossusvlei and a look at the Deadvlei and the giant sand dunes of the Namib Desert. From there head straight to the coast at Swakopmund for a couple of days birding before going north to Cape Cross to look for shipwrecks and Fur Seals.
Week 2: Meet up with our guides and follow them into the far north-west of Namibia. Visit Epupa falls on the Kunene River, Travel through the mountains and let Fred drive down Van Zyl’s Pass. Then on into the Marienfluss, Hartmann Mountains and back towards the dry valleys of the Skeleton Coast.
Week 3: Spend a week in Etosha National Park looking for Elephants, Lions, Rhino, Leopard & Cheetah. A chance for me to take some pictures of the desolate landscapes of the Etosha Pan.
Week 4: Head North-east into Botswana via the Caprivi Strip. Spend a few days around the Okavango Delta looking for birds and animals before heading to Elephant Sands in the east of Botswana to see Elephants and possibly wild dogs (my favourite).
Week 5: Make our way back to the Caprivi Strip. Pop over into Zambia to see Victoria Falls then head back along the strip into Namibia and head back to Windhoek for our flight home.
A first for one of the trips on which I was taking part would be that we were to drive ourselves. We arranged for the hire of a suitable vehicle and planned to take turns at the more general driving, with Fred doing the drive down the pass, as that was his idea. The roads are a mixture of pretty good tar for the main roads then good to locally very corrugated gravel the further you get from civilisation.
We finally landed at the airport, near to Windhoek, and once through immigration we were met by our driver who was to take us into the city to pick up our car. After this not happening on our last trip together, this was seen as a small sign of good things to come. Being shown our vehicle took about an hour. All the controls were explained and we were acquainted with the spare wheels and where to find the tools that we would almost certainly need. Our vehicle of choice was a Toyota Hilux Pick-up, with a canopy back and a double cab, giving us four comfortable seats and a fair amount of storage and luggage space. It was fitted with 4WD and low range with diff-lock on the rear axle. Apparently, these were esoteric things that you need for certain roads.
We headed off from the car hire depot and a short distance down the road stopped to fill up with diesel. The vehicle was fitted with a double tank, 80 litres above the usual 60 litre standard tank. Filling both tanks requires a certain amount of rocking and shaking of the vehicle to encourage the fuel to flow from the upper tank and fill the lower one. Fred and I had worked out that we’d get roughly 10km per litre of fuel, so good for more than 1,000km on a full set of tanks. A quick trip into the shop at the station for some drinking water and we were good to get started south.
We started south with Fred driving on good tarmac, heading for the lodge at Sesriem, visiting the tiny settlement of Solitaire on the way down. Fred decided that I needed to see the view from Spreetshoogte Pass as we dropped down of the plateau, so we soon left the tarmac and headed down reasonably good gravel roads to the top of the pass. The escarpment is around 500m high and separates the high inland plateau of the country from the coastal region that, south of Windhoek, forms the Namib desert. The view is quite dramatic, but the road has now been paved with block paving all the way down. It makes for a colourful and slightly rumbly descent.
The Namib, Sossusvlei and Deadvlei
The first view of the great sea of sand that forms the heart of the Namib is less than inspiring. Rocky mountain peaks and ridges are just occasionally rounded or overtopped by drifts of red sand. The scenery south of Solitaire, however, is spectacular. The rocky hills and narrow passes give successive spectacular views as the road threads its way south through the arid, almost vegetation free terrain.
As you near the gate of the park, it becomes clear that the line of hills to the west of us are not rock but great dunes of sand. We drive to our destination, Sossus Dune Lodge, and get settled into our bungalows. They are strung out along the hillside, raised up on stilts to lift one above the painfully hot ground and a terrain of broken rocks and boulders. We had chosen our destination because it gave us access to the park before sunrise, something that was not possible from outside the park boundary.
There was plenty of time for our first game drive of the trip and Fred was keen to find me my first close-up of an Oryx. The Oryx or Gemsbok is the national animal of Namibia and a spectacular antelope in size, colour and magnificent horns that can be almost 1m long. We don’t really have time to drive towards the desert before dinner, but all agree to be up at about 4am to make the 50km or so drive out to Sossusvlei before sunrise.
The following morning, we are out, bleary-eyed, before sunrise and down to our vehicle for the drive into the desert. Most of the journey down to the dunes is on a good tarmac road, purpose built for all the tourist traffic that the iconic location receives.
Fred drives the final few kilometres to Sossusvlei through the loose sand and the tracks of many vehicles every day. It’s hard going in the poor light, as, although the sky is certainly brightening, it is still more than 30 minutes before sunrise. At last we arrive at the car park and Fred suggests that we walk towards Deadvlei as the sun rises. The four of us start to trek across the low sand dunes towards the south, as a group of Japanese tourists start to climb the high dune alongside us.
Deadvlei is a little more than a kilometre from the car park, and involves maybe 100m of up and down over fairly well-walked sand dunes to get to the lake bed. I take several photos as the sun rises into a mackerel sky over the red sand of the dunes, as well as a few panoramas to stitch together later in the day or whenever we get a chance to stop. Eventually we reach the crest of a larger dune and the Deadvlei is spread out below us. Just to put things in perspective, some of the larger dunes are anything up to 300m tall.
Deadvlei is an ancient dried up river/lake bed that is dotted with long dead trees that seem almost fossilised – but are in fact only desiccated by the total lack of moisture. They are considered one of the great photographer’s spots in the world, as the contrast between life and death and the limited palette of the terrain make for epic images. I’m just there to try my best, but I quickly leave the others to walk around and take some shots before the other tourists arrive and inevitably get in the way. One or two of the Japanese are running down the face of their dune to get into the valley but I can live with a couple of people who can always be photoshopped out in post.
I take several shots in the smaller western pan then climb the dividing dune to head towards the main flat lakebed of hardened white clay. From back above me on the dune Fred shouts my name and as I turn to acknowledge him he calls out Oryx and points towards the western edge of Deadvlei.
This has happened to me before.
When we went to Kenya to see Kilimanjaro from Amboseli, I said I wanted to see the mountain with elephants walking past in front of it. This was considered very unlikely by Fred, but he did suggest that we might be lucky. We were luckier than we could really have hoped for and I got a fantastic set of photos that time.
Now it was all happening again.
First, I need to see what Fred has seen and try and get some photos. Sure enough, there are two Oryx down on the pan. They appear to be quite relaxed after my first couple of long-distance photos so I head slowly towards them, pausing to take photos as I approach to within about 30m of them. At this distance, they seem a little more nervous and uncertain and as they slowly walk towards the edge of the pan I take a few more photos of them and head off around the whole of Deadvlei to take a set of pictures as the light improves and the panoramic vistas open before my eyes.
I suggest to some of the Japanese tourists now wandering around the pan that they can get quite close to the Oryx and then slowly make my way back up the dune towards Fred, Chris and, higher up still, Elizabeth. I stop with Fred as Chris takes a walk down to the Oryx who have returned to where I originally saw them. Fred decides to go down for himself and I follow him back onto the floor of the pan. We find a spot as the Oryx walk slowly towards then around us, no more than 10m away from us as the head towards the crest of the dune where Elizabeth is sitting.
I realize that a photo opportunity is possibly coming my way and race up the dune towards Elizabeth, desperate to get to the crest before we lose sight of the Oryx, hoping to get them silhouetted at the top of the dune with the sky and far dunes in the background. I make it just in time, panting heavily, and manage to get a few shots as the walk over the crest of the dune as I had hoped.
Elizabeth and I wait for the others to catch up to us and begin to trek back towards the car. As we approach the final dune, we see the two Oryx are still in front of us and are about to crest the dune ahead. I take the cover photo of this book as they move slightly apart from each other and walk to the east along the top of the dune with the far side of Sossusvlei behind them.
They may not be Elephants and the backdrop may not be Kilimanjaro, but this really is an epic photo opportunity that happens only once in a lifetime. I always reflect on these special photographs. Other people can take them and they are wonderful to look at and can be enjoyed simply for what they are. These photos, however, are mine. I was there and it happened right in front of my lens at exactly the right time. Nothing can ever take away that feeling of success and contentment.
Down to the Coast
Sadly, we have little time to congratulate ourselves, as it is time to head back to the lodge, have breakfast and check out to head northwest to Walvis Bay and our next destination of Swakopmund on the South Atlantic Coast. We were going to have a couple of days in a nice B&B, go and look for desert animals and spend some time looking along the coast for sea birds.
The drive is quite an epic one, with a couple of hundred kilometres of gravel roads across the desert plains broken only by deep winding dry river canyons. Fred was driving and had a bit of a lapse of concentration on one of the more boring straight bits, veering off the line a little. We were all a bit shaken, but everything is fine apart from the under-arch trim on the vehicle, which has parted company and requires my first bit of roadside mechanic work.
After what seems an interminable time, we finally descend down to the coastline at the town and major port of Walvis Bay. It’s a chance to stretch our legs and do a bit of bird-watching on the sea front. At last, I get to see a quantity of flamingos up close, something I have tried to do on every previous trip to Africa, without success. After a bit of a walk around, Fred drives us out onto the spit, home to a huge salt works and numerous marshy and salty flats. It’s a great place to build up the list of birds, with all manner of waders, gulls and terns in evidence.
From Walvis Bay, it is just a short hop along the coastal highway to the seaside resort town of Swakopmund. I’ve seen it described as an African, German version of Blackpool, but it has only one shore pier and none of the amusements or brashness of the English seaside. The water is apparently just as cold though. The Benguela Current flows northward along the west coast of Africa, bringing cold, but nutrient rich, water from the Antarctic. The sea is teeming with life and the fishing is of major importance along this part of the coast.
We spend two nights in the town, opting on our first night to go to dinner at the Jetty, a well-regarded restaurant on the end of the Swakopmund pier. The Oryx Steak is absolutely fantastic. We don’t really do game in the Isle of Man, apart from rabbit, as we have no native or otherwise large mammals. I’m determined to try whatever is on offer, but this first taste is a very good beginning. To be fair to the seaside location, the Tempura Prawn starter was equally divine.
Early the next morning, Sean, our guide, picks us up to take us out into the desert. We spend the morning learning about the unique wildlife of the Namib. Shovel-snouted lizards, Geckos, Snakes and Chameleons all take a skilled eye to spot amongst the dunes, but we see much that we would never have seen on our own. For the evening, we go out after dinner with Steve, Sean’s father, to look for the same animals and others in the dark. The highlight is a Dancing White Lady spider that Steve persuades to attack his stick whilst Fred takes a photo.
For our third and final day at the coast, I drive us north to Cape Cross. We stop along the way to photograph one of the many wrecks of the Skeleton Coast, another of things on my to-do list for Namibia.
Cape Cross is home to the world’s largest colony of Cape Fur Seals, more than 200,000 of them crowded along the rocky promontory. I had been warned that the smell was pretty bad, but a cool breeze and some cloud cover kept things bearable as we walked down among the thousands of pups who had been left on the shore while their mothers went to feed. Every so often, a huge bull would come charging down the beach for a swim, scattering pups and us out of his way.
The lodge at Cape Cross is comfortable and right on the beach. When we all go for a walk up the coast, I take the opportunity to go barefoot in the surf. It wasn’t the most comfortable of walks, as there were thousands of sharp mussel shells in the surf, but the cool water was a welcome respite from the hot sun. We don’t see very much on the walk north, other than a few cormorants and a couple of seal carcases in the surf. On the return, however, we spot a Golden Jackal in the dunes behind the beach. He walks up quite close to us to investigate before heading northwards along the shore, doubtless lured by the scent of the seal carcases there. We all get good photos of him to add to the collection.