Tuesday, 15 August 2017

African diaries, part 8 and final: Victoria Falls

Read the previous chapters of this story: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7.

We only had a short drive from Chobe to Zimbabwe border, and although Dumi had anticipated possible delays, it went quickly and smoothly. Dumi was clever to start early: there were other groups arriving as we were getting across. And he was perfectly efficient at passport control: collected all our passports, forms and cash for the visa, and it was all done in minutes. We were in Victoria Falls by 9.

Now, the Falls as such is an attraction, but apparently VicFalls is also the capital of extreme adventures, including bungee jump, gorge swing, white-water rafting and other things I wouldn't do if you paid me. The only thing I seriously considered was Lion Walk, which was pricey, but I thought it would be a chance of a lifetime. On closer inspection, of the three hours, including pick-up and drop-off, one hour would be a talk on lion rescue programme, and then maybe, with some luck, you'd be able to follow lion cubs for half an hour in a large enclosure, so I decided against it. Anton was considering gorge swing, but at the last moment chose a 13-minute helicopter flight. Some people went horse-riding and fishing. All these activities had to be booked at various places so we didn't reach our hotel until 10.30. There, we said farewell to our wonderful tour assistants, Tabiza (also our marvelous chef) and Ambition. The rooms were not ready yet, so we unloaded our luggage, left it in the lobby and walked 2 km to the entrance of the park. It wasn't a particularly enjoyable walk, since most of it was along a busy road without sidewalks, but eventually we came to the park, where, as Dumi had recommended, we would need at least two hours to go through the sixteen viewing points.

I will not describe the Falls because there are not enough superlatives to convey the experience. I won't post all the pictures Anton has taken because pictures cannot do it justice. Just one, to prove we were there.


If you remember my first post, I had no huge expectations, because I had seen Niagara. Just shows my ignorance. Next time I come to Victoria Falls, I want to stay for three days, go to the park when it opens and stay until it closes. And I will make sure I come at full moon because then they also open at night.

There were lots of noisy people whom I tried to ignore. The difference between VicFalls and all the other places we had been to was obvious. This was a major tourist attraction, noisy and crowded. I would have liked to stay at each point – all sixteen of them – for much longer, just sit there and watch. But we were already, with a lunch break, running late because Anton was to be picked up at the hotel for helicopter flight. We had planned to walk to the bridge connecting Zimbabwe and Zambia, that we had seen from the park. 


But we were getting hot and tired and took a taxi back to the hotel. It was nice to lie down on a proper bed after a nice hot shower.

Anton came back absolutely euphoric, and when I watched his video I understood why. This is just one picture. We had walked half of it - ostensibly the most spectacular part, on the left here - up to the gorge. You need to cross to Zambia to see the rest.


Of course, I regret I didn't do it, but I know I couldn't have taken the risk. Deviation: I once was invited to fly a glider and was silly enough to accept. From that experience, I only remember the ecstasy of being high up in the air, with almost 360 degree view of the mountains, in absolute silence. The friend who had invited me only remembers how I puked all over his precious aircraft. I didn't want anything like that happen on a helicopter flight. The close-up view of the Falls was stunning enough.

We walked to town again. During our morning movements, Kory had spotted a women's craft market, and we decided that it was the right place to buy souvenirs. It was a huge industrial building, and there were dozens of women with their ware displayed on the floor: bowls, carved animals, jewellery, scarves. They were really nice things, and the women begged us to buy something, anything, just a small thing… “Welcome to my shop. What's your name? Where are you from? Please buy something...” It felt horrible to buy from one, but not the other, and I hoped they were a cooperative and shared profits, which Dumi confirmed. Still, I feel bad I hadn't bought more because I can always find someone to give a small gift, and it would have gone to a good cause. But it was getting late and dark, and we had a table booked at a place that both Lonely Planet and Dumi recommended. The food was good, but not remarkable, while the atmosphere felt genuine. Our last dinner in Africa.

In the morning we only had a couple of hours before airport transfer, and Anton and I went to the bridge. I am glad we did, because seeing the gorge from the bridge was quite a special experience. We had seen those masses of water the day before, and all this water had to pass through this very narrow gorge, which means it must be as deep as hell.


Dumi had told us to bring passports to the Zimbabwian checkpoint, but tell them we only wanted to go to the bridge. We were given a piece of paper that said: “2 people, to the bridge”. We crossed the actual border, but turned back before the Zambian checkpoint. 


That was it, and I won't describe the long, long journey home.

The trip has been life-changing in many ways, all positive, and it filled some serious gaps in my geography and history. I know it sounds trivial, but things do look different from another viewpoint, when you are there. Now, over two weeks since I returned home, I have still not quite sorted all impressions, but writing about them was helpful. And, although I kept saying to myself that it was definitely my last long-haul trip, it has made me wish to travel more. Who knows what my next destination may be?

Here were are, great travel companions, through thick and thin. And our fabulous Dumi, whose knowledge, enthusiasm and skill made the experience so genuinely brilliant. 


Anton has made a visual summary of the trip that you can watch here.

THE END

Sunday, 13 August 2017

African diaries, part 7: Chobe

Read the previous chapters of this story: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6.


Back to Sepupa boat station, where out truck waited, we were quickly on board since we once again had a long travel day, over 300 km, including border crossing back to Namibia and Caprivi Strip which has an interesting history. My guess is that the road on Namibian side is better, or maybe there isn't even a road on Botswana side. The drive was uneventful, and we were at the camp by early afternoon. It was again on a high river bank, with a lovely view. At dinner we were told that there was possibly a leopard roaming in the camp. Much as I'd like to see a leopard, this wasn't encouraging. By this time I felt quite confident in my tent, but there was some distance to the facilities, and I didn't like the idea of confronting a leopard in the middle of the night. 
 
The next day was mostly travel day again, because, although Caprivi strip looks tiny on the map, it is 450 km. We crossed over to Botswana and drove through Chobe National Park, where we were not allowed to do any game drives (that is, loops on smaller roads) because it wasn't part of the trip; we just went straight through it and were at the camp by 3. We were staying at this camp for two nights, and the campsite was on the edge of a very posh lodge with a restaurant, swimming pool etc. We allowed ourselves the luxury of just sitting down in the bar, doing nothing apart from watching monkeys. There were also other animals walking around the premises.





 
In case you wonder, these are mongoose.

I remembered a colleague who, hearing about my itinerary, said: I grew up in Zambia, and we used to go to Chobe for holiday. I could now see why. It was a fancy resort, not just a camping site.

We had to get cash for the rest of our trip, and strangely, the lodge didn't have a cash machine so we had to walk to town, which was just around the corner. There was a long queue, apparently caused by it being pay day. The machine only allowed to withdraw 2,000 pula (I had no idea how much it was in any familiar currency), so I had to use two different cards. There seemed to be a significant charge for cash withdrawal, but there wasn't much we could do about it. We needed money for Victoria Falls, and Dumi said there was shortage of cash there. Zimbabwe uses multicurrency: South African rand, pula, US dollars, pounds, euro – but not Namibian dollars. I had given up on trying to understand.

Everybody was a bit down this day. Some were still recovering from stomach problems, but mostly we were all tired, physically and emotionally, overloaded with impressions. I was thinking that I didn't want to see another animal any time soon. But I was wrong.

In the morning we took an optional game drive in Chobe National Park, in a open vehicle.

 

It was disappointing. We saw some hippos, a couple of elephants and a group of giraffes quite close, but somehow it all felt anticlimactic. The best part was hot coffee with biscuits on a hill with a nice view. 


There were no activities between the game drive and lunch, and I decided to have massage. When we arrived the day before I saw an advert for spa and told myself it was just what I needed after a long time on the bus. There were several options, and I took the most exotic: maasai stick. It turned out to be a wooden thing with two balls attached on each end. It was used by maasai in Kenya to hit animals on the head. The masseuse didn't know who came up with the brilliant idea of using the stick for massage. It was like being massaged with a rolling pin. I felt revived.

I had very low expectations of the afternoon river cruise. I thought we would sit on a boat and admire the view, which was undeniably pretty, and it would be nice to have some fresh air for a change from being inside a bus. But right as I thought nothing could get any better, there was another highlight. The boat went slowly, stopping when there was something interesting to see, and there was something all the time. And the boat got very close. 


Tons of elephants, including a tiny baby, and two bulls who fought or pretended to fight. 




And now I know why elephants wave their trunks when they have ripped out grass: they shake off sand! I had seen them do it often, but had no idea. 

Zillions of buffalo. Antelopes. Various rare birds, including marabou. (Marabou is included in the list of seven ugliest animals in Africa – I don't know why, I think they are cute). Hippos. And at least forty giraffes, galloping down the slopes and then walking slowly along the shore. Even the guide took pictures, and when we told Dumi afterwards he said it was very unusual with such large herds. It was spectacular, ending with yet another glorious sunset. 

 
 We all agreed that it was the best possible conclusion to our wildlife adventures.

Because next day we were going to Victoria Falls. 


To be continued. 


Saturday, 12 August 2017

African diaries, part 6: Okavango Delta

Read the previous chapters of this story: 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5.


As I said before, the Okavango Delta was what made me interested in this trip in the first place, so I was excited when we started getting closer. From Etosha we had a 600km drive, first till Grootfontein where we replenished our supplies, then north to Rundu and further east into Caprivi Strip. But very soon after we left Etosha we crossed the Red Line, which is a sad page in Namibia's history. 



 
 

Although we weren't asked to leave the bus and walk through a pool of disinfectant then (we were later), you could see the change in the landscape immediately. During our long drives from place to place, we saw few traces of human presence. Just vast expanses of desert, with the few exceptions that I have described. North of the Line, there were endless villages along the road, some looking quite poor, some better, but it was as if we entered a different world. Which was of course exactly what we did.

We saw signs for primary schools along the roads, few and far between. I asked Dumi whether there were any school buses, and the moment I asked I realised what a stupid question it was. Of course there were no school buses. Haven't I heard and read reports from my colleagues' and students' field work in Africa? Dumi said children sometimes had to walk ten kilometres one way to school. Sounds terrible, but on the other hand they did go to school. I may be naive and old-fashioned, but I believe in education. The children we saw along the roads were walking to or from school, rather than herding cattle, like we saw in Madagascar. Namibian adult literacy rate is 80%.

Apart from villages there wasn't much to see, so I slept a bit. We reached the camp at 3.30 which felt a blessing. The camp was on a high river bank, with a great view. On the other side of the river was Angola. 


There was an optional boat trip, about which Dumi said contemptuously: ”You will see absolutely nothing”. But some people went anyway, and they were allowed to alight in Angola for three minutes and take a picture of themselves with a piece of paper that said: ”Illegally in Angola”. In retrospect, I should have done it – just my thing. Instead we went to the bar and had beer (Anton) and juice (Kory and me) and watched another glorious sunset. Because of the river, the landscape was almost rainforest, and the frogs were singing, and there were lots of birds.

In the morning we drove south to Botswana border. We would cross Nabimia-Botswana borders three times in three days, each time painlessly, but I have a traumatic relationship with border crossing. This will be a deviation, but I must explain. Growing up behind the Iron Curtain and then travelling between Sweden and Russia, being searched at the Finnish border each time, nervous that something was wrong. Feeling humiliated travelling by car to France when I had to get transit visas for every country we passed (the Germans were particularly nasty). Feeling humiliated at JFK because, in my US visa stamp, they had crossed out the standard “multiple indefinite” and written ONE ENTRY. It got less stressful when I got a Swedish passport, and since then I have crossed from USA to Mexico and back, from USA to Canada and back (on one occasion I crossed twice, going to Niagara Falls first in the morning and then at night), and I even crossed from Germany to Austria before it joined EU. You get used to it. Having now lived in the UK for nine years, I am more used, once again, to passport control, wherever I travel, but it somehow feels different when it is an actual border, overland. It is all wired somewhere in my brain: border crossing = danger. And now I have all these stamps in my brand new passport. For Zimbabwe, we had to pay for the visa. Dumi looked at me with some anxiety, until I explained that although I live in the UK, I have a Swedish passport. Zimbabwean visa costs almost twice as much for UK nationals.

Back to the first Namibia-Botswana crossing: apart from two forms to fill, it was very straightforward, and we walked across the no-man's-land from one checkpoint to the next. Then we had another hour's drive, and we were now in Botswana time zone, losing an hour. I couldn't figure out whether it made me more hungry or less. Lunch was by the river and boat station at Sepupa. We were leaving our truck there, taking only daypacks and water canisters, and going by boat to an island right in the middle of the Delta. (Well, not really, rather on the edge of the Delta, where the Panhandle opens into the Pan).

We also met our new guide who introduced himself as Frog. I thought it was funny, but people have all kinds of names that have funny connotations in other languages. However, it turned out that Frog was his artist name. He said his real name was unpronounceable for Europeans (it had about fifteen different clicks in it), but he had chosen Frog to reflect his character. Later in the camp, we were all asked to choose animal names that he could remember, because our names were unpronounceable for him. Fair enough.

Anyway, Frog was our Botswana guide, and he was taking us into the Delta. Before we started, he asked us to sign a liability disclaimer. One of us wondered what exactly the implication was. Answer: “If I tell you not to jump into the river, and you jump into the river and get eaten by a crocodile, it's your responsibility”. Later, on the island, he told us that the password into nature was “respect”. Password, you know, he said, what you need to get into your computer. Password into nature is respect.

Our supplies and cooking equipment went in one boat, and we all went in another. This is me, in my silly hat, on the right.

Photo: Susanne Trudsø

These three hours going on a boat through the Delta are among the happiest of my entire life. This was what I had come for. Sure, we saw come crocs and a few hippos and masses of interesting birds. 


 But the boat ride itself, through tributaries that meandered this way and that so eventually you lost all sense of direction; waterways that narrowed and opened again. I know I have dreamed it many times, exactly like this. I enjoyed every second. I think many of my fellow travellers were bored. 

Photo: Susanne Trudsø

Finally we went into narrow channels where the boat hardly passed through, with tall papyrus plants on both sides. And then we were on an island, called Pepere (meaning “papyrus”), that you will not find on Google maps, as far away from everything as you can imagine. 


Have I mentioned that I have a particular love of islands? I have even written an academic paper on the subject. 

There were permanent tents in this camp and real beds with linen, which felt nice for a change. There were two local women who cleaned the tents. They were not invited to share dinner with us, but had to wash up, which made me feel bad. I asked Frog where they lived, and he said in a village eight hours away by boat. He himself also lived far away and only went home twice a month in tourist season.

After dinner we had a briefing. We were not allowed to walk around on the island (except between the tent and the toilet) because at night hippos, elephants and crocodiles came ashore. This wasn't a joke: we saw fresh footprints in the morning. If we did see a hippo or elephant we should not flash our torches at them because they would attack. “Respect” is the password. I wondered whether the animals knew it. There were also baboons who had learned to open tent zippers, so we were advised not to have food in tents.

All night, cicadas were singing.

We had late breakfast next morning, 6.45, and started at 7.10 which must be some secret local time. First a short walk across the island where we took mokoro, which is more like a punt than a canoe, maneuvered by long poles. Two people per boat, and a poler, who was friendly but not very talkative. There wasn't much need for talk because the scenery was amazing. 


Through a narrow channel of papyrus to the next island, where there were supposedly lions, leopards, buffalo, elephants and other animals. Strict orders: keep as close together as possible in single file (walking elephant paths), do as you are told. Indeed, within five minutes there was an elephant and no fence or anything between it and us. Frog told us to freeze. I had a short moment of contemplating death by elephant – probably very painful. It moved around us slowly, but didn't come closer. I cannot say how long we stayed there, motionless: maybe five minutes, maybe ten. Then it went away, and we could move on. I asked Frog later what he would have done if the elephant had attacked us, and he wouldn't say. Some people admitted having panic during the elephant encounter and said they hadn't quite enjoyed it.

We saw no other animals, but Frog showed us fresh footprints and fresh elephant dung. This was a different feeling from viewing animals from the safety of a car or bus. He also showed us some carcasses of buffalo and warthog, which the lions had killed only a week before. Completely clean of meat. I am not sure I would like to witness a kill.

We took the mokoro again, for a longer trip, and saw a lot of hippos in a lagoon. Hippos can hold their breath for seven minutes, so it's a bit like whale-watching: you see it go down, count seven minutes, and then out they come, not always where you expect. But because there we so many of them, we saw several at any given moment. We kept a respectful distance. 


Then we came back to our island and the camp and had lunch. Six people had upset stomach. I know it's common on such trips, but it felt awful, and I was mortally scared to get it too (I had a very mild round later). We had a couple of hours to rest, which was what we all needed. Then we gathered again – those of us who were ok – and Frog talked to us about the Delta, its animals and its people, and also its future, if Namibia builds a canal higher up the river to supply water for its own agriculture. Suddenly it all got into a larger context. 90% of water in the Delta evaporates. Maybe it makes sense to try and use it before it evaporates. But who knows how it may affect the ecology.

Then Frog took us on a short walk on our island. We saw two warthogs, but mostly Frog told us about trees and plants and their medicinal uses (particularly for upset stomach). Suddenly we were by a gigantic baobab. We must have seen it all along without realising it was a baobab, hidden behind other vegetation, because it was right by the camp (me for scale). 

 

Then we went out in a boat to watch the sunset over the lagoon (those crazy Europeans and their sunsets!). 


Next morning was another blissful boat ride through the Delta. It was very early and freezing cold, but I enjoyed the ride too much to mind the cold.

I had this strange idea. What if the whole experience was a simulation? A huge, well-designed augmented-reality game. So if we were to go on the same trip another day, there would be the same elephant encounter (and maybe you need a special bonus to see the lion kill), and the same hippos going down and up again in the same places. While the real animals have been dead since long time ago. This would make a good story, but I won't write it. It may be true, but we will never know.

I also kept remembering Ray Bradbury's short story “The Veldt” - the landscape and the whole atmosphere was inviting.

After the first full day in the Delta, when I had seen what I had come to see, I felt that I must come back and stay longer to see more. Then it felt that I had seen all there is to see. Or else I was so overwhelmed by all impressions that I could not take in any more. I would have liked to see lions and leopards, but apart from that – more papyrus, more water, more hippos, more of the same? As with deserts, mountains and other experiences: after a first taste, you may return to study it closer, but you may not. Anyway, we had no other choice than to move on.

To be continued


Wednesday, 9 August 2017

African diaries, part 5: Animals galore (in Etosha national park)


Read the previous chapters of this story: 1, 2, 3 and 4.

The day we left Spitzkoppe was probably the hardest and the most boring of the whole trip. I was in the front seat to the right, but there was really, really, really nothing to see. We were to cover 530 km, which is a long distance even on a German motorway, and we were on unpaved roads, and the estimate travel time was nine hours.

I am full of admiration for Dumi, our guide and driver. I just cannot imagine how he managed it. Driving a busload of fussy European tourists for nine hours on unpaved Namibian roads… But to be fair, we weren't fussy. We were patient and disciplined, and when we were given a ten-minute comfort stops – boys to the left, girls to the right – we were back in the bus in ten minutes; and when were we given thirty minutes in a supermarket to get our water and whatever else people wanted, we were back in thirty minutes. We all knew that the drive would take nine hours and were prepared. One of us got motion sick, and although I know it's a horrible thought, I was glad it wasn't me. I had been worried about motion sickness because I get it every now and then, on a scale that few people have witnessed, still less experienced. It's not just throwing up; if it hits me, I am knocked our for days (yes, I have been tested for all kinds of diseases, and nothing was found, so it's just my bad luck). I wear patches for flying, but they make me tired, sleepy, thirsty and disoriented, so I didn't want to wear them during the trip, taking terrible risks. My empathy with the poor motion-sick companion was total, while I was also glad it wasn't me, because a young motion-sick person evokes pity, a old motion-sick lady evokes disgust. Sorry, I couldn't help it. I sat through the day imagining myself motion-sick and wishing I had never come to Africa; so this day was particularly strenuous.

However, the last 100 km before we got to Etosha national park was a good paved road, and by the time we entered the park we were all excited, anticipating to see lots of animals, maybe even a rhino if we had luck. And what did we see less than a minute into the park, at the first waterhole? A rhino!


We only had time for a very short loop, but we saw giraffes, zebras, impala, kudu and jackals, so it was a good ending of a difficult day. And the best was still ahead.

We reached the camp site Okakeujo exactly at sunset, and Dumi kindly allowed us to run to the waterhole without setting up camp first. It is an artificial waterhole into which water is pumped. The horizon was still yellow-orange, and by the water there was a group of elephants, with another one approaching, and they greeted each other politely. There were two small ones. And a herd of giraffes. You could almost not see them in the twilight, but they were reflected in the water, moving slowly and graciously, and I could have watched them forever. 

 
 When Anton took this picture he said I would make it my cover photo on Facebook. Maybe he was joking, but I have.

Because I had just followed the group and had no idea how to get back to our camp lot, I had to go back when others went back. After dinner we went there again. The waterhole is floodlit, and it's magic. First, there was nothing, and then there was a rhino, moving slowly and freezing every now and then. It left, and another came and left, and another… and another. I believe they were several because they were of different size. 

 
This picture shows a smaller one. Imagine one almost twice as big, two huge horns, closer and in perfect profile, white against the dark, its reflection in the water. No picture, but I will never forget it.

I asked Dumi whether we could run quickly to the waterhole before we left in the morning, and there were no animals there, as if there had never been any. Maybe we had dreamed them? 

We drove in loops in the park, mentally adding animals to our catalogue:
      tons of antelopes
      zillions of zebras (and mind, it's zEbra, not zEEbra!)


      giraffes, one with a tiny baby


      kudu
      wildebeest, aka gnu (I think gnu is a better name)
      red hartebeest
      another rhino
      jackals
      secretary birds
      kori bustard (with whom Kory naturally felt particular affinity)
      ostriches
      something that some people thought maybe possibly was a leopard, but the rest of us didn't believe them
      and finally, at the very end of the day, three elephants very close by the roadside.


I was very happy that we got to see elephants so close, because I had seen them like that in South Africa and was eager for Kory and Anton to have this experience.

Dumi would stop whenever we saw anything interesting, and Tabiza gave us fascinating facts about animals. When he couldn't answer a question, he stealthily consulted a book. 

We had lunch at Halali camp, midway through the park. While Tabiza prepared the meal, we were again allowed to go to the waterhole, which was a natural one, with a viewing platform high above it. There wasn't much activity in the middle of the day, but when I went there again after lunch, I saw a group of elephants leaving, so I guess if you stayed long enough you would see a lot. But we had to move on.

In the afternoon we drove out to Etosha pan that I thought was horrible and Anton thought was the highlight of the day. It is a neverending dry surface of salt, possibly as dead as a place can be. 

 
Everybody was fascinated, but I just wanted to get out of there as soon as possible. This picture is supposed to show me dying of thirst, but we didn't stage it very well. 


For the night, we stayed at yet another camp, Namutoni, on the eastern side of the park. Its waterhole was nothing like Okakeujo the day before, and strangely, I felt completely fed up with animals and also very tired. The next morning we drove a final short loop in the park and saw hyenas and a dik-dik, the smallest antelope in Africa, ridiculously small, like a toy. Then we had another long day on the road. 

To be continued. 

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

African diary, part 4: Night sky at Spitzkoppe

Read the first, second and third chapters of this travelogue.

The drive from Swakopmund was only going to take two hours. I had no expectations of this afternoon, other than it would be the only camp without shower.

Side comment: It's nice to have a shower after a long day on the bus, or after a walk on a hot day. But I have no obsessive needs to shower every day. Thinking about how precious water is in all those places – is it really, really necessary to shower every day? I know most people will disagree.

We were going to Spitzkoppe, a weird rock formation in the desert that reminded me of Kata Tjuta in Australia ( a less known, but more spectacular neighbour to Uluru). I don't know whether this place was chosen simply because it was a reasonable overnight spot or whether it is considered a sight in its own right – Lonely Planet says “one of Namibia's most recognisable landmarks”.

I sat in the front that day (we moved clockwise every day, as you do on long bus tours), and after an hour of flat, featureless desert, something triangular appeared at the horizon. I suggested to Anton that this was where we going, but he said it was too near. I pointed out that “Spitz” means spearhead, and this hazy blue cone was as close you could get to a spearhead. It had to be it. Also, I said, it looks near, but it isn't. Indeed, the rock appeared on the left one moment, and on the right next, as the road winded; and it kept growing, as rocks do on an otherwise open horizon, and I started feeling that I would like the place. When we came closer it wasn't just one rock, but a huge group, and we drove right through it to our camp. It was magnificent. 

 
There was an option walk to see cave paintings and meet local people, which I skipped because I just wanted to walk on my own, as it was promised was possible. But it so happened that when the cave painting walk left, there was Anton and Kory and me, and our assistants had started pitching tents so it would have been rude not to help. The tent construction is very clever – of course I hadn't pitched a tent in fifty years so maybe all modern tents are like that. It was completely arbitrary where your tent would be pitched from one day to another, and they all look the same, so I made a point of marking my tent with a towel. You may laugh – but I am an old lady with silly habits. This picture gives you a very good idea of our camping arrangements. The beds were surprisingly comfortable.


Anyway, setting up camp was quick. The scenery was stunning, and the sunset promised to be amazing. Dumi, our fantastic guide, pointed out a dip between two rocks, called The Bridge, and the sun seemed to be setting right there. It is easy to get lost in a desert, so I drew a mental line between the dip and the rock right above the camp – it had some specific features I could rely on, otherwise it can get deceptive since rocks change every minute as the sun is setting. I walked as far as I dared on my own, because I wanted to be sure I would find my way back before it started getting dark. The dip kept moving further and further away, as they do – I stated this earlier about dunes. Finally I climbed a very small rock and watched sunset from there. It felt I was alone on the whole world, in a huge valley surrounded by red rocks. Then I walked back, trying to walk in a straight line toward the rock I had chosen as my beacon. This place was a bonus; I hadn't registered it as a place of interest rather than a overnight stop. I was totally, profoundly happy.

There was fish for dinner, that our chef had bought that very morning at a market in Swakopmund. Fresh fish baked over open fire in a desert – what can be better?

After dinner Anton, Kory and I walked about fifty steps away from the camp and switched off our torches. There it was, the Milky Way, just as I remembered it. I had been worried the previous nights that I couldn't see it, because my vision is getting really poor, and I thought, what if I never ever would be able to see the Southern sky. But apparently it was just too much light before, even in camps, not to mention cities. There it was, the Cross and the Pointers and the Milky Way and the black nothing in the middle of it. It is a miracle every time. And Kory had never seen it before. Friends from the Southern hemisphere, you have no idea how lucky you are to have this incredible sky. It brought back the best memories of Australia, South Africa, Amazonas… I know it sounds pathetically trivial, but it means so much to me. Just as much as the seaside, or maybe more.

Back at the camp, one of the assistants was pointing out constellations using a phone app.

I woke up at five, packed quickly and then sat watching the light emerge and colours on the rocks go from grey to yellow to red, and by seven we hit the road. I would really have liked to stay in this place for one more day. Shower or no shower. 



To be continued. 



Monday, 7 August 2017

African diaries, part 3: Swakopmund by the sea

Read the first and second part of this travelogue.

We were instructed that breakfast would be served at 6, but by that time we were supposed to have packed our luggage and daypacks, bringing them to the truck; rolled up our sleeping bags and brought them to the truck – the opposite side – together with mattresses, and preferably folded the beds and put down the tents. Amazingly, it happened, day after day, like clockwork. I guess people coming on this kind of trip are well disciplined. And of course Dumi and his assistants were outstandingly efficient.

Since I went to bed early, I would wake up at five, and occasionally could enjoy a shower before everybody else, sometimes even a warm shower. All showers and other facilities in all camps were exemplary clean and nice.

From Sesriem we headed north toward Swakopmund on the Atlantic coast. Not quite north, though, because north of Sesriem is just sand dune after sand dune, and the road makes a long loop, almost halfway back to Windhoek. We were to cover 300 km that day, and based on the trip down from Windhoek I prepared for nice scenery to watch. It didn't turn out quite so.

First, we stopped for coffee at a place called appropriately Solitaire. It was a road crossing with a coffee shop in the centre. Now, a solitaire can refer to a diamond, but I think we all associated it with “solitary”. But the coffee was good, and they also sold “the famous Solitaire apple pie”. We all wondered whether apples came from.

The next stop was at the Tropic of Capricorn which was pathetically unremarkable, but of course we all took pictures. 

 

Then came the endless desert. I like deserts, but it was a particularly deserty desert, with absolutely nothing to look at until we came to Kuiseb Canyon, which was dramatic and a bit scary, with a narrow, steep and winding road with black rock on both sides. 

 
We stopped a couple of times to take pictures and also to look at three quiver trees that for some reason grew there, although they otherwise grow somewhere else. I said they looked like aloe, but Anton didn't believe me. However, I was right. 



Then there was more desert, and still more desert, and it was getting absolutely flat and bare and featureless, just flat and dead all the way to the horizon. It made me tired because there was nothing to look at. My fellow travellers were asleep or listening to music or playing games. I was trying not to think about anything home- or work-related. It was a good exercise.


And then the desert stopped abruptly, and we were in a seaside resort, with palm trees and green shrubs and flowers, and neat houses with gardens – as if we were miraculously transported from Kansas to Oz. We were at Walvis Bay, a harbour town, where we were to have lunch and admire the flamingos. Yes, those famous flamingos from Attenborough films, millions of them. Well, it was wrong season for flamingos, so there were hundreds rather than millions, but it was a miracle being at a waterfront after hours in the desert. You have to believe me that there are flamingos in this picture because they were far away, and we were advised not to go close.

 
Then we hurried on to Swakopmund – again, first a strip of bare desert, and suddenly a green, neat, lovely town which could be a seaside resort anywhere in the world. This was a good reminder of what can be done in the desert as soon as there is fresh water, in this case the Swakop river, which unlike the seasonal Kuiseb – or ephemeral; I love this phrase: an ephemeral river – is permanent and allows a tiny bit of the desert to become a lovely town.

Some people had booked activities: there was a wide choice of sandboarding, hot air balloon, dolphin cruise, camel riding, and more. Anton was tempted by sky diving, but it was far too expensive. I considered camel riding, but Anton reminded me that I was likely to get motion sick, which was the main reason I opted out of dolphin cruise. After my experience with dunes, I also opted out of sandboarding, which I had seriously considered back home. There was also a township walk, but it's not my cup of tea. Eventually, we decided to have a quiet afternoon, walk around in town, and for the evening Anton had booked a table in a fancy restaurant. This was the one and only time during our trip we stayed in a guest house, and it was nice to sleep in a bed for a change. It was also good not to have any activities and digest everything we had already seen and done, which was overwhelming.

We strolled in the town, that had a wealthy, European atmosphere, and many streets still had German names. We went to the beach. I hadn't been at an ocean beach for years, not since Rio de Janeiro, which was six years ago, so I now can add Swakopmund to my mantra of seaside places. Huge waves, and we went on the pier and watched the sunset. It couldn't be better. 


The restaurant was excellent. Back home, when I was reading the guidebook, I checked a famous restaurant in Windhoek, only to discover that it had recently closed down. Which was just as well, because tired as we were after the long flight we would probably not have enjoyed it. But we enjoyed The Tug immensely. Seriously, the best oysters I have ever had. Local fish with calamari and prawns. It was clever of Anton to book the day before because it was full.

I liked Swakopmund so much that I thought I might retire there if I couldn't stay in the UK. We looked at property prices displayed in windows: I would easily afford a nice house. But then of course it's far away; I don't think the grandkids would visit over the weekend as they do in Cambridge. Anyway, it was just a thought.

We had a leisurely start the next day, and again while some other people engaged in activities, we three walked around, bought a headtorch and a towel for me, and attempted to get some cash. The currency situation in Namibia is complicated: the Namibian dollar is tied to South African rand, and both are in circulation, but Dumi had advised us to have a supply of rand because they could also be used in Botswana and Zimbabwe, and there was no guarantee there would be more cash machines anywhere on our route. We didn't need a lot of cash, mostly for water and occasional snacks; but we were running out of what we had taken out in the airport. We went into a bank where there was a long queue, only to learn that we couldn't get rand on our credit cards, but we could take Namibian dollars from a cash machine and then exchange for rand. I don't want to think how much all these operations cost in commissions. It had to be done, and it was done. Until the end of the trip, I hadn't figured out the exchange rates and prices, so eventually I just gave Anton all my cash to dispose of as he saw fit. 
 
After managing our financial matters, we went to café Anton, both for the name and because it was highly recommended in Lonely Planet for its exceptional German bakery. Our final activity in Swakopmund, which I liked more and more and would like to stay longer in, was the aquarium. Frankly, it wasn't much of an aquarium if you have been to some of the good ones, but it had two sharks and some local fish, and it really didn't matter because we were in a lovely town by the sea; but now it was time to move on. 

To be continued.  

Sunday, 6 August 2017

African diaries, part 2: sand dunes

Read the first part of this travelogue here.

The main, if not the only reason I had chosen this trip was the Okavango Delta. As always, Attenborough is to blame, because those fabulous pictures of the delta made an indelible impression, and for many years I had been resentfully telling myself: “Well, this is surely one place you will never see”. So even though I had read the itinerary and the guidebook, the delta was the projected highlight for me, and everything else was a bonus. Sand dunes: fine, I have seen a sand dune in France, yes, it was huge. Game reserve: fine, I have spent a whole week in the Kruger park. Victoria Falls: nice, like Niagara, just bigger. But the Delta – I hadn't seen anything like that.

So when Anton said that the Namibian sand dunes had been his dream for ten years, I was surprised, not to say perplexed.

But let me relate it in correct order. We were picked up at our hotel at Windhoek by the same driver who had picked us up from the airport the day before. It turned out that he would just transport us, and three other travellers, to the meeting place with the rest of the group and the guide, 350 km south-west. The rest of the group – by serendipity or by design, a mix of Swedes and Danes - had already been travelling together for a week, driving all the way up from Cape Town through Kalahari desert.

The road from Windhoek was good, and we had two comfort stops at fuel stations that offered clean, nice facilities with toilet paper. Public toilets have always been a yardstick for me, and the toilets on the way from Windhoek made me feel safe. You could even get decent coffee. We stopped for a picnic lunch at a scenic spot, but otherwise no sights were pointed out, and we were at Sesriem camp some time in the afternoon – I had no clock, and for the coming weeks I lived outside linear time, measuring indefinite chunks between getting up – lunch – dinner – going to bed, which was just what my tired mind needed. I lost count of days; no dates, no days of the week, just Day 1, Day 2 and so on of the trip.

But: back to our first camp. We were as yet uninitiated in the routine and hadn't seen the huge truck that would be more or less our home for the next two weeks. 

 

The other travellers were pitching tents. Everything was happening very fast because we were going to climb a dune to admire the sunset. I hardly had time to get my bearings. I am not a very good climber, and in the first place, I hate making people wait for me, so as everybody ran up easily on the sliding sand, I just told them to go ahead, I would tackle the effing dune at my own pace. Dumi, our guide, helpfully suggested that for each of us, wherever we got to was the top. I will remember these words of wisdom in other life situations as well. With hills, mountains, rocks and, apparently, dunes, every time you think you are there, you just find another hill, another rock, another dune above. That's me, climbing the dune. Looking at this picture, I feel insignificant.

 
 I missed the sunset, but who cares. It was pretty. I found my way down. 

 
Back at the camp, we had a great meal from the braai, bringing back memories of South Africa, and suddenly it got very cold. The trip notes had warned about cold, and I was glad I had listened, because frankly it felt ridiculous packing a winter jacket when going to Africa. Our fellow travellers confirmed that some nights it had been below zero. 

 
I was exhausted, physically, yes, but also emotionally. Here I was, alone in a tent, in African desert. Last time I had been in a tent was forty-five years ago when I went to an archeological dig. I had a camp bed, a mattress and a sleeping bag. I felt overwhelmed. Anton had generously given me his headtorch (I had discovered that my old one was broken the day before I left home). I put on three layers of clothes and crawled into the sleeping bag. Within five minutes, I was asleep. When I had to go out around midnight, a crescent moon lay leisurely on its back, and first then I felt I was where I wanted to be.

Flashforward: it took me several days to establish a routine for the night. One night, when I needed to go out, I couldn't find the torch and panicked, because it was pitch dark. Then I remembered that I had a torch in my phone, and I knew where my phone was, in the deepest pocket of my backpack. I found the backpack, I found the phone, I switched it on, I switched on the torch. After that, every night as I went to bed, I would lay out on a kerchief, in a strict order: clock, torch, glasses. Clock, torch, glasses.

The order was to sit in the bus at 5.45 because we had to drive an hour to some very special dune that we would climb to see the sunrise. I wonder what local people think about tourists' obsession with sunrises and sunsets. When we lived in San Diego we enjoyed our private sunsets every night for two years and never got tired of them. But otherwise, unless you live by the ocean – or in a desert – you rarely have a chance to watch sunsets, which makes them special. And undeniably, a sunrise over sand dunes is spectacular. 
So, this particular Dune 45, appropriately called because it is 45 km from the camp, is designated for tourists to climb, as, the guidebook informs, it is the most accessible. Dumi had said that yesterday's climb was “easy” so I prepared to skip this one, but it was too tempting. Again, I let the fittest pass me and climbed in my tempo. This was truly a sand dune, just sand with a narrow ridge. Your feet sank in the sand, and I was scared to lose balance. (Anton said afterwards that, unlike a snow slope, in sand you would just fall and stop). I was going to give up every now and then, but persisted, and although I never made it to the top, the reward of the sunrise – not to mention breakfast on return – was great. 


Anton was our designated photographer, so all pictures reflect his point of view. Here is our well deserved after-dune coffee. Note that we are in Africa, wearing winter clothes.


Another ten kilometres further into the dunes, and Dumi promised “an easy, flat walk, maybe with some small dunes” that I was looking forward to, but “easy and flat” is of course relative, as are “small dunes”. Doubtless, as compared to Dune 45, they were just tiny hills. 

 
Eventually the group split, and the brave ones went to climb a REAL dune (second highest in the world!), while Kory and I and some others were told to walk around the dune. Now, “around” is also relative, and finally I realised that there would be a lot more climbing involved, and even the perspective of one of the most iconic views in Namibia, Deadvlei, wasn't tempting enough. I imagined having a heart attack halfway and decided to be sensible. It had also got very, very hot. I walked to the shuttle station and caught a ride back to our bus. Again, I had no idea what the time was and had no one to ask. I sat in the shade with a glorious view of the toilet, with oryx walking around,


until my travel companions started returning – by shuttle as well, since no one had the stamina to walk back. Anton was blissful and said that he was ready to go home. I am sorry I missed Deadvlei as it was apparently stunning. 


After a quick lunch by the bus, we went almost all the way back to the camp, watching all these magnificent dunes, now in full sunshine. We went to see a canyon which was amazing, but of course in a canyon you go down first and then have to climb up; however, it turned out I am a better canyon-climber than dune-climber.



Still I was dead tired by the time we were back in camp. I put the mattress on the floor and lay with my feet up on the bed for a while. But it was good tiredness, and I was soon full of vigour again, and I even helped with preparing dinner. Dumi had said that the trip was “with full service”, but they wouldn't mind if we wanted to help. As a side comment, the food was fabulous all the way through.

 

Back in the dark solitude of my tent, I had some deep philosophical reflections. Travel is not egoistic. By travelling and feeling happy we increase the general amount of happiness in the world and make it a better place. We share our happiness with other people – as I am doing now. But maybe it is a wrong way to think about it. 

To be continued. 

Here are some more pictures of the sand dunes, to make you happy: