The Clockwise Trip Around Namibia

Barry Grogan and Lorraine Welsh

13 Jul 2017

Leaving the big game until last

We'd already decided on Namibia as a destination for our first safari, partly because of the relatively compact and "guaranteed" Etosha National Park, but also because of the must-go-there-some-day sand dunes, plus we liked the flexibility and independence of the self-drive option.

From our own research, we broadly knew our likely itinerary, and then Natural World Safaris (NWS) honed it into a perfect balance of self-drive, game drive and stop-overs, plus made some great accommodation recommendations.

We asked NWS to make all lodges aware that Lorraine was vegetarian, which all bar one had a clear note thereof, and given we're in such a meat diet based country, they all made a very good fist of their veggie options, albeit a little samey. 

We were ambivalent to where we pit-stopped overnight in Windhoek, and the Montebello Guest House was perfect for purpose. At the appointed time, we duly received delivery of our 4 x 4 Ford Ranger together with a video demonstration of the practicalities of driving on gravel roads, and a demonstration of how to place and use the jack and change the wheel should the need arise, and how and when to use the high or low ratio drives. Do not be put off by any of this: there is nothing difficult about applying any of it, nor will you run out of diesel, nor get lost!  We were also visited by NWS's on the ground operator, where the representative went through our itinerary in detail including a route-highlighted map, which really gets the juices flowing. Meanwhile that night we got a taxi to Joe's Place (N$150 return), a bar/restaurant that is something of an institution, partly for it taste-half-a-dozen-local-animals kebabs (Barry is not vegetarian!).

The beginning of the clockwise loop

After an early breakfast, and on the exact same time zone as the UK, we set off South on a clockwise loop heading for a place recommended by NWS that we wouldn't have otherwise known about: Bagatelle Kalahari Game Ranch on the fringes of the Kalahari. This very first leg of the journey is just so exciting as we are both looking in all directions to try and spot anything, and pretty soon we've chalked up springbok and baboons.

Once we turned off the black top road, the spotting potential ratcheted up, and we saw bat-eared foxes and other antelope.

This was the first of nine places we stayed over fourteen nights, and we really liked it. It had more of a buzz about it through being a bit bigger and fuller than some of our subsequent ones (all places said June was a bit of a lull). We went on our first game drive and sun downer, and also to the large sanctuary where two orphaned but now grown up cheetahs who never learned to hunt approach the sound of our vehicle, and are fed kudu meat from a large bowl with us standing right by - one will let you stroke it whilst it's blissed out eating (all for N$700 each). Back at dinner, our first of three outside (this and one other worked as they had sufficient fires for warmth; one didn't - the temperature does drop significantly shortly after sun down), the tame resident springbok does it's best to pinch everyone's bread rolls, and at breakfast time, the local family of meerkats come over, lured by the not very pc cheese brought out by one of the waiters.

The next day we were off to the highly recommended (by NWS) Wolwedans Dunes Lodge in the huge NamibRand Nature Reserve. After a journey on just C and D roads, it's still another 20km on the private track to the reception area, during which we saw our first zebras. There we were met by our guide and driven yet further to Dunes Lodge...but what a place! This was one of several where we'd pushed the boat out, and the vastness of the dunes and mountains, the isolation, the stillness are all such a heady and primal mix...and that's just the daytime - this Reserve has a rare Dark Sky gold standard, so when the stars come out, boy oh boy, it's like being in outer space.

We spent an hour between sundowner and dinner lying down on our "sun" beds just being mesmerised. 

Prior to dinner that evening, the menu was part announced / part sung in both the click language and English by the staff, and that night we slept with the canvas blinds open for sunrise. After breakfast, we went out with a bushman for a couple of hours, and then for the first (and only) time, we spent the rest of the day on the sunbeds just reading and hanging out, including lunch and coffee and cake at 16:00, which all of the lodges do.

The Monster Dunes of Sossusvlei

The next morning at 5:30, our guide picks us up with a pack-up breakfast, and takes us down to the reception area where we're off to Sossusvlei for those monster dunes. The gates to this area at Sesriem open at sunrise, and then it's a 60km drive to the dunes, but on tarmac. The very last 5km are for 4WDs only, and we were in the car park at the end of this last section by 09:30, which was good enough for best-after-sunrise or before-sunset colours, and not too hot.

I'd no pre-conceived ideas about what we were going to climb, but it was instantly apparent we were opposite the biggest - Big Daddy, so off we set.

There were a couple of moments for one of us when the peak didn't seem to be getting any nearer, and where the sand briefly blew in our faces, but the ascent was easier once we took our shoes off, and we duly made the peak, and planted the Union Jack, figuratively speaking! The way down is the sheer slope which looks impossible looking up, but is in fact simple and quick, although by now it's midday as you're back to ground level, and walk through the deadvlei salt pan with the classic ancient blacked out camel trees, but it's a great feeling back at the car - a kind of bucket-list tick-off moment.

Girraffes Crossing

Our next place was an hour or so away from the Sesriem Gate, as a stopover for the next day's journey to Swakopmund. It's the only place we used the pool (it was mid-winter!) as we were so sandy, but although the stone cottage was kind of rustic, overall this was our least favourite place, mainly because the dining room was so plastic and sterile and starkly lit, and in complete contrast to the smiley, happy, singy, clappy staff we'd had so far, the more-waiters-than-necessary stood around un-motivated. No music, no ambience...it was all a bit tumbleweed and clock ticking. We picked a nice bottle of wine, though, and it fulfilled its purpose of a means to an end.

We're on our way again next morning, and almost immediately we have to stop the car as a family of giraffes cross the road in front of us. Fantastic! This is the kind of thing you hope happens to you, but you wonder if it only happens to others (like our failed attempt to see the Northern Lights in Iceland!). 

Giraffes were the animal Lorraine most wanted to see, and we ended up seeing loads, but this first time was magical, and a tear had to be wiped from an eye! 

After this and crossing the Tropic of Capricorn, the rest of this long leg of journey became a bit tedious, but then the rolled back fog of Swakopmund eventually came into site, and not long thereafter we were being given the tour (they all do this - check-ins are very personal and last a good ten minutes!) of our delightful central colonial Villa Margherita.

Bits and Pizza? Loadsapizza!

We spent the afternoon wandering around the town, with a mini mission to find a company doing sand boarding in the afternoon, as most activities seem to go out in the morning, including kayaking with seals on which we were already pre-booked via NWS. Having achieved that through Charly's Desert Tours, we headed to the cosy but outré bar in Delight Hotel for a couple of cocktails, then back to the naffly named yet superb Bits and Pizza close to our hotel. After eating local for a week, a pizza was a welcome change, but better still were some of the left-field choices, and the fact they do half-and-half! What a fantastically simple and brilliant idea, so that's what we had...except they were massive, and so we boxed up the leftovers and gave them to a down-on-his-luck chap sat in a doorway.

A Sea Soup of Seals

Saturday morning, and it's a 30km drive down to Walvis Bay to go on Jeanne's kayaking trip. We park up and with four others, go in her vehicle past millionaire houses, then flamingos and pelicans, along salt flats, past the converted light house and a few jackals, and then we come across this massive colony of seals. The youngsters know it’s the daily kayak run, and they're already in the water and excited for us joining them. Jeanne sorts us out with waterproofs, and shoves us in. They're double kayaks, and a doddle to manoeuvre even for novices, and the sea in the sheltered bay is calm...apart from a seething soup of twisting and turning and leaping and squawking seals! 

They're playful and mischievous, and love nibbling the paddles, and your elbows, and are so many, it’s hard to move the oars at times. One even climbed aboard! 

After an hour or more, we're finally dragged out, to coffee and sandwiches. Jeanne is a great host and true seal guru!

Sandboarding...Going, Going, Gone!

That afternoon, we're picked up from our hotel and driven 5 km to the sand dunes for boarding (N$400pp). The board is, literally, just a bit of flimsy hardboard, but they wax the shiny side with floor polish, demonstrate by one of them going down first, ensure you've got the knack by trialling you on a baby slope, and then letting you loose on a big steep one.

It's pretty exhilarating, but we found ourselves wanting bigger, higher, faster! The downside is, for every down there's an up: you have to yomp back up the slope yourself to go again - there's no chairlifts here! 

Eventually it's back to the hotel for a wash and brush-up, cocktails at our new favourite place, and then dinner at the pre-booked Tug restaurant, which lived up to its plaudits, and without asking, we found ourselves with a window seat overlooking the floodlit waves crashing onto shore below.

A Sunrise Treat

Next morning, it's up along the Skeleton Coast for a bit through the fog, and then a right inland as part of a 400km schlep to Damaraland Camp, a glorious ascent into one of the driest and most desolate regions in all of Africa, and where the final 12km are on a rocky off-road road. This is another plush treat-ourselves place, where the main business of each day is an early start to an elevated position outside the camp for a full-on sunrise breakfast, then the drive in search of desert adapted elephants. It's a long session from 06:00 to 14:00 (N$1,430pp), but absolutely worth it as we see firstly a sole male, then a group of seven, and finally a whole herd of thirty plus, with which we spent some time.

  On the way back, we call by a living museum where ancient bush-living practices are demonstrated.

An African Stand-Off...

The only slight down-side to the set-up here is that your guide is allocated to you all of the time when you're not in your room, so all meal times and at the bar. Even if you have the most personable guide, we found that a little too much.

On the second night, dinner was served outside in a magical "boma", which was enchantingly lit, and kept well warm with plenty of fires for the buffet type affair, which we really enjoyed.

When we went to leave next morning, we found we had a flat tyre from a slow puncture, but the Camp got their maintenance man to swap wheels, and phoned Europcar, who advised us where to go on our existing route to have a new tyre fitted to the existing rim (they like you to have two spares at all times). We duly called at that place: they were expecting us, and changed it without cost or fuss, as per our hire agreement.

It's now Tuesday of the second week, and we still haven't been to the big game sites, but that changes today as we head for Andersson's Camp, just outside the Etosha National Park gates. They are the third place we visit that is on its own private reserve (Ongava), and great things are promised here, and delivered. We go out on the afternoon game drive (N$750pp) and as well as more giraffes, we get right up close to a whole pride of lions, and end up having our sundowner by two white rhinoceroses. The next morning we go on their game drive into Etosha (N$1,100pp), and see just about everything possible of the bigger animals (except cats), especially African elephants, including one heard that faced us off on the road - we eventually reversed gracefully!

Discovering Etosha

We liked the feel of Andersson's Camp, which had the best waterhole. The rooms are small but nicely appointed with individual balconies looking out onto the Reserve, although the place is due a big revamp around December 2017. The staff here were perfectly pleasant, although not quite on it to the extent of most of their counterparts elsewhere.

After two nights here, we spent about seven hours meandering through Etosha on our own, which is easy using its detailed map, and spent the night at the very swish Mashara Lodge just outside the other end of the Park. 

This was top end, if a little soulless, perhaps because there weren't many there that night, and it seems people are quite transient here, staying just one night before or after Etosha. They also did a boma, but the night was just too cold for it, unfortunately.

Then on to the last leg at the AfriCat Foundation at Okonjima where we stayed at the Plains Camp. We maxed out here going to the afternoon cheetah tracking and sundowner (N$670pp), where we got out of the vehicle for the last ten minutes to find two of them on foot; then we did the night drive and saw hyena, porcupine and jackals; then leopard tracking in the morning (N$670pp), where we did see one briefly, but close up, and finally a visit to the AfriCat Centre (N$400pp), a fascinating insight into the whole conservation programme, where we also saw several cheetahs really close up.

The end of an amazing trip

The next day was a straight run to the airport to drop off the car, and fly home.

In conclusion, we had an absolutely fantastic time. We did 2,978 km (1,850 miles), but no drive exceeded six hours, and the routine of up around six for a game drive or breakfast before leaving was perfectly workable, always getting us at the next place in time for afternoon game drives, and with most dinners at 19:00, everyone's pretty much in bed by 21:00. We spent N$2,850 on diesel (£175), and including this, spent around £1,700 between the two of us on just about every game drive offered, tips, lunch where not included, and drink (always beer on arrival; G&Ts at sunset, and a decent bottle of red with dinner). I won't go into the amounts and etiquette of tipping here, but guidance is given in some hotel "manuals" in the rooms (but always guides direct; rest of staff through the tips box), and by talking to others, you'll get a feel. 

We would not have changed a single thing about our route, and in our opinion, it's far better to go clockwise and build up to the big game than vice versa.

We're glad we discounted Fish River Canyon and Luderitz / Kolmanskop which we originally tried to shoe-horn in, but for anyone going for three weeks, add in that or maybe the Caprivi strip.

Whilst our next holiday couldn't be in starker contrast (Japan), we'll certainly look to do another safari type trip elsewhere in the region in the next two or three years. 

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