Tuesday 1 June 2010

there's more to see than can ever be seen....

Day 8 Damaraland

Approximate Distance: 425 km
Estimated Travel Time: 7 hrs

After the excitement of Swakopmund, it was actually quite nice to climb back aboard Denver to spend another long day watching the beautiful landscapes of Namibia as we sped along the salt roads.  We all know each other pretty well by now, and we're taking it in turns on the iPod at the front of the truck, so the travelling is actually turning out to be one of the real high points of the trip... just as well given the amount of mileage we're getting through on this trip.  This is the closest we will be to the sea for the rest of the trip, and we stop to have a quick look at the coast before turning inland.  This is called the "Skeleton Coast" and hundreds of ships have been wrecked along here over the centuries as this was the major route from Europe down to the Cape and then around into the Pacific and onto the Far East.  As you can see from the shipwreck above, it's still a pretty treacherous stretch of water, and also one that is filled with seal and shark.  I'm not sure if you can do any diving around here, but if you can (and you don't get eaten by any of the big fish) then I imagine that there's loads of stuff to see.  It's a strange environment where the desert meets the sea, and it's almost impossible to tell where the desert ends and the beach begins.  The primary vegetation around here is lichen, which is apparently one of the only things tough enough to survive in these harsh conditions.  Apparently it's scientifically very interesting, but it sure isn't much to look at.... although apparently it's a real job trying to keep people off the desert in their 4x4s around here and I'd sure as hell rather look at the lichen than at tyre tracks that have destroyed everything around them and will be here for centuries.

We stop along the roadside to have a look at some stalls.  Well, the looking at the various trinkets here is all part of an arrangement with the stallholders, who know full well that all most tourists want to do here is to take pictures of THEM, and the purchasing of bracelets enables them to collect money with their dignity intact.  Why are they so interesting? Because the stalls are run by Himba and Herero women, the former mostly naked apart from some red dye on their skin and the latter wrapped up in some twelve layers of clothing, a dubious legacy of Christian missionaries.  As a general rule, we don't really stop for "tourist" type attractions on this trip, searching as we are for a more authentic experience (well, as authentic as you can get when you're travelling in an overland truck with 20 other people)... but Elbie makes an exception here and we stop for some awkward photos.

We carry on through the amazing Namibian landcape of shattered rocks, but we're now getting towards the business end of the tour: the game parks.  Before we reach Etosha though, we have one more night at a place called Twyfelfontein.  Elbie told us when we were sandboarding in Swakopmund that it's here that we have the chance to go and see a rock carving of a penguin, even though we're some 200km from the coast.  She tries hard not to express too much of an opinion as she likes people to make up their own minds, but it's clear she doesn't think it's up to much.  When we get to the campsite, lots of people to decide to go in search of elephant instead, and only a few of us take up the opportunity to go and have a look at the carvings, a mere 15 minutes drive down the road.

It's clear from the moment we pull up that Elbie has underplayed it somewhat: a sign tells us that this is the site of Namibia's only UNESCO World Heritage sites for its carvings that are estimated to be some 5,000 years old.  Whilst it's true that the penguin isn't all that, there are plenty of other carvings here that are well worth a look.

[photo courtesy of Grooves....]

Probably the most famous is the five-toed lion..... a carving of a lion with an extra toe on each foot and a five-fingered tail  Apparently these carvings were mainly done by shamen as they went into the trance that they believed saw them turn into animals.... the same animals that they then carved into the rock.  It's a beautiful spot, nestled as it is against the low mountain range, but the carvings are simply stunning.

Well worth a look, I would say.

At the campsite that night, we spend a special hour or so with the locals, who come along to visit us around the fire and sing us a few songs.  This is not a tourist thing, and these guys are wearing jeans and t-shirts and singing us songs about Amarula and Toyota cars, but it's great fun nonetheless, and we all get up and have a little dance with them.

...We also enjoy yet another stunning African sunset.

Day 9-10 Etosha National Park

Approximate Distance: 300km
Estimated Travel Time: 8 hrs

Another early start, but now we're all filled with excitement about the prospect of visiting a National Park.  We've seen plenty of animals along the way, but this is our big chance of seeing some of Africa's most iconic animals.

A couple of days before this, we spent a long time peering into the distance at some zebra standing so far away that it was almost impossible to tell if they had stripes or not.  Almost as soon as we enter the park, we see the zebra in abundance....

...and impala, and wildebeest, and giraffe and elephant and secretary birds and eagles....and everyone now has their eyes open for some big game.

Etosha in waMbo means "the great white place of dry water" or “white place of mirages" and the Etosha National Park offers a variety of wildlife and phenomenal natural beauty.  Upon arrival in the area in the afternoon, we pretty much immediately go out on a game drive in Denver around the huge dry pan to try to find the elephants, herds of antelope and lions around the waterholes.

Apparently a recent animal count of Etosha National Park came up with the following numbers: 30,000 Blue Wildebeest; 25,000 Springbok; 23,000 Zebra; 5,000 Kudu; 3,000 Hartebeest; 3,000 Gemsbok; 2,600 Eland; 450 Giraffe; 2,000 Elephant; 260 Lions; 20 Black Rhino; 325 Bird species.

Naturally, we're all keen to see the lion above all and book onto game drives that night in the hopes of catching a glimpse.  For three hours that night, we sit in the back of an open landrover, we wrap up in slankets and still freeze to death in the hopes of catching a sight of some game.  We see all kinds of things: hyena, cape fox, owls, springbok, black backed jackel and lots of other stuff that we don't see again anywhere else, but because we don't see lion, we almost feel cheated.  Enough prey already, we want the predators! Needless to say, when we get back to the campsite, cold and exhausted, before heading to bed we wander over to the illuminated waterhole and are almost immediately rewarded by the sound of lions... followed by the breathtaking sight of two adult male lions making their way over for a drink, grumbling and roaring all the way.  It's mesmerising.  They weigh up to 200kg and can put away 35kg of meat in a single sitting, but in some ways they're just like big pussy cats.  One finishes his drink and then contentedly rolls onto his back, showing his tummy to the world and letting out a rough purr.  It only takes one full-blooded roar for that image to disappear though, and I am suddenly very conscious that I could be this guy's dinner if it wasn't for the wall and waterhole between us.  It's a sound to send shivers down your spine.

It's the start of an amazing 24 hours where we are incredibly, almost supernaturally lucky.

The next morning we get some great close-up views of giraffe, but better is to come:

We see lion!  A pride of lioness with their cubs.  We sit and watch, awestruck as they wander past us.

We see Oryx too.  They're not lion, and we've seen them before.... but they're a pretty damn cool animal too.  Let's not let the big predators skew our perspective, eh?

We see a load of elephant popping down to the waterhole for a drink at lunchtime.  We got a glimpse of some yesterday, but here we get a really great look as the other animals respectfully clear the way for these graceful animals to get to the water to drink (200 litres in less than 4 minutes, apparently) and to apply a bit of mud as sunscreen (although judging from their skin, the anti-ageing properties of mud leave something to be desired....)

The day's not over yet either.  We head down to the pan that gives Etosha it's name.  The salt pan here is something like 130km long and 50km wide in places.  Even when it's completely dry, as it is for much of the year, animals come here to lick the salt off the ground.  We stop briefly at about the only place in the park where you can get out of your vehicle and have a look around..... because you can see anything coming for miles in every direction.  It's a beautiful spot.  So we muck around.


DJ Tash loves this picture, as you can imagine.... taken as we travel across the park towards our next campsite.  Before we get there though, we still have time to get slightly off the beaten track.  You hear stories of safaris where the animals are quickly encircled by cars as tourists stop to have a gawk.  It's nothing like that here, and we spend most of the afternoon completely on our own... which means that we have the elephant and black rhino (rhino!) we spot all to ourselves.....and then the most unlikely person on the truck spots the most elusive of the Big Five and shouts for Barry to stop the truck and back up.

We look and look, but we see nothing, but Jane is adamant that she just saw a leopard cross the road... and then we see it, not 3m away from where we have stopped, well camouflaged amongst the grasses.  Jane's leopard looks at us, and we look at him.  It's awesome, and by the time he melts into the undergrowth some 10 minutes later, we know that we've been unbelievably lucky and our charmed day has had the perfect finish.  Even Elbie and Barry seem impressed.  We really are the party..... something brought home when we meet the GAP trip travelling in the other direction that night.  Dyeing your hair red and cheating in a tent-erecting competition does NOT make you the party.  FACT.  I hope you enjoyed washing your truck.....

The next day our luck seems to be holding and we see some more lion almost as soon as we re-enter the park, this time a pride of two young males with lioness and their cubs. There are some impala here too, and we are lucky enough to see one of the lionesses stalk and then chase one of the impala.  She fails, but then plays it really cool and pretends that she wasn't really trying anyway..... it's all a very impressive sight.  Unbelievably, some idiot in the car behind us apparently hasn't seen the hunting lion and tries to get out of her car to get a closer look at the impala.... she seems confused to have a truckload of people yelling at her to get back into the car.  Watching a kill would be cool, and I'm sure those photos would sell, but.....

The cubs are pretty cute too, although there are a few cars around them as we're right at the park gates, and they clearly get a bit scared when they get cut off from their mum on opposite sides of the road.   It's another magic moment though, and all too soon we have to head off out of the park.

Etosha was brilliant.  What an awesome trip this is turning out to be.

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