Namibia: "Like No Other Place on Earth"

Sharon and Fred Tooley

20 Mar 2019

two well-travelled nws clients make their first visit to namibia

two well-travelled nws clients make their first visit to namibia

– Richard Mullin

We departed Houston on October 6 for our evening flight to London, the first leg of a 33-hour trip to reach a country in Africa that we have always had on our “bucket list”. Loving adventure travel, we had made some long treks before, and as with previous trips the arrival in Namibia erased almost all the memories of our 26 hours in the air, long layovers, two nights of “sleep” on planes in our economy seats, and more airplane meals than we care to remember.

Our previous trips to Africa were to Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Madagascar. The logistics of combining Namibia as part of a previous trip had never worked out timing-wise. We can say, without hesitation, that we wish that we had tried harder to make it work and hadn’t waited so long to visit this magical country. We really had no idea what to expect – even though, as always, we researched the country and the trip locations. However, reading and research about Namibia does not prepare you for being in Namibia.

There are no strangers in this world, only friends I haven’t met yet.– William Butler Yeats

We have been incredibly fortunate to have visited six countries in Africa – four of them on safaris planned by Natural World Safaris. This trip, however, was our first “small group” trip. We couldn’t help but worry just a bit about how seven total strangers from different continents and a guide might “get along” together for 10 days on the road, eating three meals a day together and spending long days of road travel in a 4x4.

It only took our first day of travel and getting to know each other to realise that we had met wonderful new friends, and as everyone who travels knows, their guide is “always the best guide in the world”! This trip was no exception – our guide Usko was incredible – the best of the best, and over those 10 incredible days of travel, he was not only the leader of our “pack of intrepid adventure travellers” but also our guardian, teacher and most of all, our friend. We were learning about Namibia and also about the three continents and four countries that our group represented.

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Days 1 & 2

After meeting our group and sorting out luggage and equipment transport, we left Windhoek behind and started our 2,179km journey. We headed towards our first overnight stay – Sossusvlei and the Namib-Naukluft National Park. We travelled through some of the most amazing country – from the highlands, down to the Great Escarpment and into the Namib Desert. We travelled in comfort in our air-conditioned Land Cruiser, custom-fitted so that each of us had a window seat to see the incredible world that we passed. We picnicked along the way and excitement grew as we began to tick off the sightings of birds and antelope in our species notebooks that had been provided for each of us. We reached our lodge for the next two nights, the Sossus Dune Lodge, where we relaxed over drinks and dinner.

We had a predawn start the next morning, leaving the lodge and driving through the total darkness with only the stars and our Land Cruiser’s headlamps to guide the way. Because we were staying inside of the national park, we were able to reach the dunes before the park’s gates opened to the public. This allowed us to be at the foot of the dunes at sunrise to witness some of the highest free-standing sand dunes in the world, as the soft light of the rising sun cast shadows that accentuated their surreal colour, a bright orange-red.

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The dunes were yet untouched by visitors’ footprints; as we made our climb to the top of “Big Daddy” and then the slide down to Deadvlei, we felt like the dunes belonged only to our group and a few other lucky visitors that were staying inside of the park. We learned that the colour of the sand that forms the dunes is created by the presence of iron oxides in the sand coupled with innumerable particles of garnet, giving the dunes their brilliant hue. The shades vary according to the age of the dunes, and the older the dune the brighter the sand colour. Can you imagine hiking through garnets? We did, and the experience was truly one of the best in a lifetime of travel memories.

We were treated to a full breakfast that Usko cooked for us on an outdoor grill. As we talked and ate our delicious meal, we sat under the shade of one of the park’s ancient camel thorn trees, only a short distance from those otherworldly dunes. Bacon and eggs will never taste that delicious ever again.

We returned to the lodge for lunch, rest, and then a trip to Sesriem Canyon to watch the sunset. That sunset was the exact orange-red of the dunes at sunrise. Before turning in that night, we sat on our chalet’s private deck facing the vast Namib Desert and gazed at a sky so full of stars that it took our breath away: Namibia, like no other place on earth that we have ever been. It was like experiencing Africa all over again for the first time.

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Days 3 & 4

From the dunes to the coast the next morning as we packed up and headed to Swakopmund, a coastal city where we looked forward to cooler coastal breezes. As we travelled closer to the coast we realised that the sands of the Namib continued right into the Atlantic Ocean. This massive “beach” puts the size of our world into perspective, making the beach near our home on the Texas Gulf Coast seem very, very small in comparison.

We checked into our hotel and had the rest of the afternoon to explore the historic downtown area, the ocean boardwalk and the open-air market to look for small gifts to bring home to friends and family – all of this only a short walk from our hotel. That night, we were treated to a delicious seafood dinner at a great waterfront restaurant.

Early breakfast and then the drive to Walvis Bay for a catamaran trip through the lagoon and harbour. We saw African pelicans, flamingos and thousands of Cape fur seals. We got “the photo of the day” – capturing a Heaviside’s Dolphin, mid-leap/airborne, above the waves of the Atlantic. We were served champagne and feasted on Namibian oysters prepared more ways than we knew were possible. A very cold day but a perfect day in Walvis Bay, Namibia!

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Days 5 & 6

Another early start and back on the road today. Stopping at a segment of beach at the beginning of the Skeleton Coast, we stood in the sand at water’s edge, marvelling at the fact that we were standing on the extreme western edge of the African continent. We photographed a shipwreck that was no longer seaworthy but a perfect nesting platform for hundreds of cormorants. We walked through the seafoam that had blown onto the beach and decided that the cold misty morning was perfect weather to experience a bit of the infamous Skeleton Coast of Namibia.

We were travelling towards Damaraland – yet another place that the words in my vocabulary fail to successfully describe – miles of vibrant red colour, massive table-topped mountains and impossibly odd rock formations. Herero women wearing their long, colourful, beautiful dresses and cowhorn-shaped headdresses beckoned us to stop and explore their roadside stands, while children waved at us hoping that we would stop and buy some of the beautiful coloured minerals that they had dug from the surrounding mountains. Beautiful Namibia – words fail.

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We stopped and hiked the Burnt Mountain region to explore the amazing natural rock formations called the “Organ Pipes”. We arrived where we would spend the next two nights: Kipwe Camp These igloo-shaped bungalows seemed to disappear into the surrounding boulders. It was an amazing place and as we stood at the highest point of the camp property that night for sundowners, we were treated to one of the most amazing sunsets that we had experienced on this trip.

The next day we enjoyed breakfast and then left in search of what our itinerary described as the “elusive desert-adapted elephants”. Usko had been keeping track of reports regarding where each of the two known elephant family groups were last seen. After an hour or so drive through the beautiful Huab River Valley region, one of our group shouted, “Elephant!” In our group of seven, we were the only ones who had travelled to Africa before – seeing your first wild elephant in Africa is one of the most exciting experiences you can have in a lifetime of adventure travel! We were almost more excited for our travelmates than we were that we had found the elephants.

Cheering and shouts of “Where, where?” caused Usko to stop and try to calculate which direction our lone elephant might be heading. The right decision was made and within five minutes, we found exactly what we had hoped that we would – a small herd of these amazing animals. We stopped, Usko raised the pop-up top of our Land Cruiser and we spent the next three hours with these wonderful beasts all to ourselves. We took, literally, hundreds of photos. Mums, babies, two young males who entertained us for almost the entire time with their mock charges at each other – trumpeting and kicking up enough dust to make visibility almost zero at times.

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As in the world of all parents, the adult elephant mums and aunties in this family finally intervened, and we could easily interpret what they were saying to their “boys”: “Stop it right now! All is well and good but keep it up and someone is going to get hurt!” We had to start our trip back to the lodge so we will never know if the tussle stopped. We made our way back to the lodge through the amazing landscape where Usko stopped to point out and explain the fascinating indigenous plants and the history of the area.

Our afternoon was a scheduled trip to a recently appointed UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Twyfelfontein rock engravings. Our group had a mixed review of this. Yes, it is a fascinating place, but at the time of year we were there it was brutally hot, crowded, incredibly dusty, and involved some difficult climbing as we tried to manoeuvre over crumbling rocks to get to the prehistoric engravings. I think that had we been making the trip during cooler months, we would have had a more enjoyable experience. If given the opportunity to “rewind” that 4-hour segment of the trip, we would have made the decision to use that afternoon time to sit on our private balcony at Kipwe Camp and photograph the amazing wildlife that lived there and the hornbills and other birdlife that swooped from tree to tree.

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Day 7

Very early breakfast and departure this morning but none of us grumbled. We were on our way and heading towards what we had been anticipating for a week: Etosha National Park However, we had a full day of incredible travel and sights before that. We travelled via the Grootberg Pass and witnessed landscapes and geological wonders that could only be imagined before this. Namibia is truly breathtakingly beautiful, yet it’s often a stark beauty, sometimes making it an alien-looking place. It was a “different” Namibia with every turn of the roads that we travelled.

The day’s first goal was to search for the semi-nomadic Himba people, one of the last peoples of Namibia leading a traditional existence. We stopped at a local school to meet the principal, several teachers, some of the children, and to deliver school supplies that some of our group had brought. Usko detached the trailer that held our group’s luggage and secured it. Once we started the trip to where the Himba made their camp, we understood completely why he had done this. Never in all of our years of adventure travel have we experienced such a drive. The route was treacherous and seemingly impossible for any vehicle to survive, but never once did we feel in danger or worry, as Usko was a remarkable driver.

Most of the trip was spent with all of us looking out the window incredulously and saying out loud that “NO WAY can this vehicle make it through this terrain” – very little actual manmade road, huge rocks and boulders, mountain streams, tall vegetation, goat herds – a ride that no words could describe! Yet somehow we made it – Land Cruiser and all of us in one piece. We were greeted by the Himba and given a tour of their village – a fascinating afternoon.

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We had the return drive to face but somehow going back down didn’t seem quite as rough – maybe because we picnicked beside a beautiful mountain stream surrounded by a palm grove and lush vegetation – a true oasis for a picnic lunch. We were back on the road for the remainder of a very long day of travel. Along the way, we had our first giraffe sighting along the roadside and our “first time to Africa” travelmates felt that they were now, truly, “on safari”!

We found out an interesting fact about this part of Namibia – public roads with public access to travellers actually run through private, fenced properties. Usko would stop, jump out and jog to the numerous gates across cattle-guard crossings, unlatch the gate, drive the Land Cruiser through, and then carefully latch the gate again. We lost count of the number of times that this happened, but this along with the amazing birdlife and wildlife sightings helped to break the monotony of a very long day of driving.

We reached our next lodge in time for sundowners and then enjoyed another delicious meal before turning in for an early departure the next day. This was the only stopover on the trip that was for just one night. We were told that the drive on to Etosha National Park was too much further and that the drive couldn’t be accomplished before the gates closed. Thus, we had a free evening to enjoy the beautiful night, the beautiful resort, a relaxing dinner, and wonderful conversation with our group.

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Days 8 & 9

Etosha National Park’s name means “place of dry water”. It is a magical place that will live within us for the rest of our lives. The immense salt pan, that we had read about and had been waiting to see, is so immense in size that it can be seen from space! After an early start and what seemed like only a short drive, we had arrived: Etosha National Park. We entered the park through the southern Anderson’s Gate and made our way slowly across this magical place, stopping throughout the day at waterholes to view, in one day, more animals than we had seen on previous 10-day trips to other parts of Africa.

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We arrived around 9am and by end of day had seen the following: a leopard, a pride of ten lions, two black rhinos, an amazing amount of elephants, a long list of antelope (including oryx, kudu, impala, springbok and hartebeest), untold birds, an amazing number of giraffes – including 10 at one time at a watering hole – many of which were drinking (an amazing sight), and four “white elephants” (gigantic pachyderms encased in the dried clay of the salt pan and looking as if they had been carved from crumbling white stone). We had never heard of them and Usko told us that wildlife photographers from all over the world come to Etosha just to photograph these magical beasts, and unlike us, sometimes have to wait days to find them, if at all. Luck was definitely on our side.

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We spent close to an hour stopped, to view part of the immense salt pan (4,800km2) that we had anticipated seeing. It did not disappoint. We watched a herd of hartebeest walking single-file across the snow-white surface of the pan. To try and put size into perspective, these large antelope, the first we had ever seen, looked like ants in a sugar bowl. As we stopped our drive for the day and had to quickly head for the exit gates before sunset, Usko suddenly stopped and pulled to the side of the road. Then we heard the word, “Leopard!”, and there he was, our first in the wild! A creature so exquisite and so stealthy that to this day, if it weren’t for the lucky photos that we were able to take of him, we might have doubted upon our return home that he hadn’t been real – only a dream creature that was a figment of our collective imaginations.

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As we made it to the gates with only a few minutes to spare, we felt like a 4x4 full of “Cinderellas” – like the day that we had just spent wasn’t real. And, to use a phrase that we all used much too often on the trip, it was the trip of a lifetime, compressed into nine unforgettable hours in a place unique to earth: Etosha National Park.

Tired but adrenaline-charged after the day that we had experienced, we arrived at our home for the next two nights: Onguma Tree Top Camp. We have stayed in many incredible places that Natural World Safaris has taken us to over the years but this was a truly amazing place – unique in more ways than I can successfully describe. It consisted of four thatched roof, wooden chalets, built atop stilts and connected by boardwalks. They are connected to a main complex with a bar, lounge area and a large dining table where all of our meals were served. Our group of seven had all of this to ourselves. It became our “group family complex”.

This was the first hotel where we have ever stayed that was “literally” keyless, and that doesn’t mean using an electronic access card. All of the rooms had only three walls and no front doors – each positioned for complete privacy. The entire front of each of our individual chalets was completely open and faced one of the reserve’s watering holes that was floodlit at night. Our bed faced a parade of birds and wildlife coming and going all day and all night. We had two incredible nights here – nights that we will never forget.

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Our second morning after an early breakfast, we headed back to Etosha. Within half an hour we had our sighting of the one thing that we had failed to find during our visit the day before: cheetah! We spent the next several hours revisiting the watering holes that we had seen the first day and it was as if we were experiencing them for the first time. After lunch and a free afternoon, we were taken on a late-afternoon game drive within the private Onguma Game Reserve, where our camp was located.

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Travelling through giant termite towers and swooping hornbills, we spent almost an hour watching a 6-month-old lion cub and his mother enjoying the shade of the late afternoon. We stopped for sundowners and all of us had the bittersweet knowledge that tonight was our last night in this beautiful place. As we watched the stars appear while the setting sun was still low in the sky, we watched a giraffe walking slowly with the blood-red setting sun silhouetting her – a classic “out of Africa” scene frozen as a digital image that in years to come, we will look at and be transported instantly back to this incredible country, Namibia.

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Day 10

– Tim Cahill

Early start today – it was the last day of our Namibian adventure. We reached the last stop on our itinerary before travelling back to Windhoek where we had started our safari 10 days earlier. This final stop was Okonjima for lunch and a game drive through the protected sanctuary of the AfriCat Foundation that is located there. The Foundation focuses on the research and rehabilitation of Africa’s big cats, especially injured or captured cheetah and leopard. We were taken on a tour of their facilities and listened to a lecture about their important work – past, present and future.

Afterwards, we travelled on to Windhoek and our various guesthouses where we would spend one last night before our international flights home the next day. We busied ourselves with group photos, excited conversation, the exchange of email and home addresses, and final hugs and promises to keep in touch. We had arrived 10 days earlier not really knowing what was in store for us on this, our very first group trip with NWS.

Saying goodbye was much more difficult than we ever could have imagined. This adventure with our intrepid troop of seven from all over the world had turned into one of the best travel experiences that we have ever experienced with our travel to seven continents. As we hugged Usko and waved goodbye to him, we felt like we had said goodbye to family – our very own “band of bucket list warriors” and our incredible leader, Usko. May we meet again someday, in a faraway place as beautiful as Namibia.

You have to understand – there is a romance to Africa. You can see a sunset and believe you have witnessed the hand of God. You watch the slow lope of a lioness and forget to breathe. You marvel at the tripod of a giraffe bent to water. In Africa, there are iridescent blues on the wings of birds that you do not see anywhere else in nature. In Africa, in the midday heat, you can see blisters in the atmosphere. When you are in Africa, you feel primordial, rocked in the cradle of the world.Jodi Picoult, Leaving Time

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Comments

Arabella Worthington

25/3/2019 12:19 PM

Dear Sharon & Fred, I had tears in my eyes whilst reading this. Such a well written account of your incredible adventures to one of my favourite countries. I'm so glad you had such an amazing time and memories to last a lifetime and have new additions to your merry band of Bucket List Warriors!. Namibia never disappoints - it truly is such a magical country. Thanks for writing this lovely travelogue! Best wishes Arabella

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