A short morning’s drive takes us in Namibia (free visa), with a stop at a local clinic to pick up some malaria medication for Ebron. We camp at Ngepi, a quirky, beautiful campsite along the panhandle of the Okavango.
It’s strangely known for its unique toilets and showers, each with a different theme and catchy name, some set amidst trees and shrubs, with the shower on a raised platform. There is even a Royal Throne, a solitary toilet set on a ledge overlooking the river. Or, if you prefer, the Poop-A-Falls, a toilet two stories high, thatched and overlooking the fields. Or the Lav-a-Tree (say “lavatory” fast… get it!?) set on a mighty log.
Here, the two couples in our group go for an upgrade in treehouses, a rustic room with thatched walls, rainwater spout showers and even a device that sprays mist onto the roof when it gets too hot. We walk the expansive grounds on a perverse toilet / shower tour. There is also a croc- and hippo-proof cage set in the river for swimming.
We spend the afternoon desperately trying to get some laundry done. My two day stash of clean clothes is almost depleted, but unfortunately, an afternoon rain shower prevents anything from really drying. Laundry on this trip is a love/hate affair. It’s an evil necessity, but the most anyone can hope for is a state of neutral, neither dirty nor clean. Dinner is served in the restaurant, a mouthwatering meal of chicken stuffed with feta cheese with a crepe sprinkled with sugar and lime juice for dessert.
The next morning, we set off at the groggy hour of 5 am, putting our tents down in the pitch dark. The grad student chooses to forego his tent all together, preferring to sleep in the truck instead, a mosquito coil keeping him company. The dry, white, sandy Namibian countryside whirs by, thanks to good roads. We are in for a 12 hour driving day, aiming to make the gates of Etosha National Park before they close at 6 pm. The inside of the truck looks like a low-rent tenement with freshly-laundered-but-not-yet-dry-clothes hanging from every possible place. George gives us a workshop on taking photographs in low light, useful for the dimly lit waterholes we’ll be seeing in the next few days.
We arrive ahead of schedule and take the opportunity to check out some trails around Namutoni, our campsite. In just over an hour, we manage to see a herd of inquisitive giraffe and then minutes before arriving at camp, we are fortunate to see two juvenile male lions sunning and lapping up water literally by the side of the road.
We’ve been told that the government-run campsites in Namibia are first rate and we’re not disappointed. There’s a beautiful blue swimming pool (most of the other ones we’ve encountered have been filled with river water…) and the ablutions are immaculate with reliable hot water. There is also an old fort on site which includes a restaurant that serves gourmet meals including pan-fried crocodile.
Of the campsites we visit in Etosha, all have a waterhole with comfortable seats for viewing. We see springbok and kudu drinking and also zebra, but from a distance. There are signs asking for silence at the waterholes and people comply religiously. It’s funny to see two dozen people sitting absolutely still for hours on end in the hopes of getting a glimpse of an animal drinking water. An Italian family brings their lunch in noisy brown paper bags, drawing dagger looks… My handy net book plays episodes of Scrubs while I wait for the animals to emerge…
Ebron is still zonked out, so dinner is a drawn out affair of bangers and mash, interminably cooked over an unwilling campfire. By the time we wash up, it’s past 10 pm and we’re all exhausted.
The next morning and afternoon, we go on game drives in Benji, roof hatches open. The landscape fluctuates between scraggly scrub and wide open plains. There is also the Etosha Pan, a chalk white desert that stretches inhospitably as far as the eye can see. The hot desert wind blasts our faces and the sun is incredibly intense. The truck is not air-conditioned – no overland truck is. However, Benji’s windows are great – ceiling to about elbow level – as opposed to some of the ones we’ve seen on other trucks – some with heavy clear vinyl posing for windows. There are two windows for every seat, so opening the far window provides circulation without having the wind blow directly on your face.
On our game drives, we see two animals we haven’t seen before – oryx and springbok – and there are tons of them. We’re particularly taken with the oryx and their regally long straight horns. Apparently, when meeting up with lions, they stand their ground, using their horns like spears. In the afternoon, a sudden wind whips up the dust, leaving a thin white coating on everything, including us, and a rain shower mercifully cuts the heat.
We camp for two nights at Okaukuejo with supposedly the best waterhole in all of Africa. It is beautifully scenic, with a meter-high stone fence and benches all around as well as a covered viewing gallery. Unfortunately, because of the rain, the waterhole is sparsely visited. The only animals we see in the two hours we sit there is a solitary male lion along with some jackal who are obviously accustomed to humans, as they leap the fence and walk amongst us at will. The lion calls out gruffly and somewhere in the distance, another lion answers.
We hear lion calls all through the night. In the air, bats make a meal of the insects attracted by the light. Huge flying dung beetles crash land on the pavement with an audible crack. In the morning, the bathroom sinks are filled with their carcasses, fatally attracted by the lights but unable to climb up the smooth surfaces.
Although the waterhole is floodlit, animals appear gray in the dim light and against the gray rocks along the edge of the waterhole, they are incredibly hard to see; only their tentative movements give them away. However, the whole experience of sitting in the semi-darkness, straining to make out any outlines of animals in the distance, is strangely therapeutic…
We leave Etosha with bittersweet memories and head for Otjitotongwe Cheetah Park. On the way, we stop in Outjo for a quick shopping run. Along the street are some Himba women, hawking crafts. The Himba are noted for having braids dipped in mud, and cleaning themselves in the smoke of fires rather than with water. Oh, and they’re also always topless… After some curio shopping and internet, I run across them getting ready to leave, one talking on her cellphone, looking very out of place.
‘You want picture?’
‘No, thank you. I’m going to your village tomorrow’.
‘Give us each 10 Namibian dollars for a photo’.
‘No. But I will give you a souvenir from my country’.
They look at the Cambodian riels I have which are worthless but make good souvenirs…
‘How much is this in Namibian dollars?’
‘It’s not worth anything; it’s only a souvenir’.
‘Okay, take photo’.
With that, I hand my camera over to the guy who looks to be driving them around and he badly tilts the camera and can’t find the shutter. The picture turns out poorly. I didn’t expect it to be very photogenic, seeing as we were standing next to their car and a concrete wall on the other side.
Later I see them in the grocery store, still topless.
‘Give us each 10 dollars or we will call the police’, they harangue.
‘No. I gave you what we agreed on. Go ahead and call the police. I’m happy to explain it to them’.
Outside the grocery store, I see them wildly gesticulating to a man in fatigues. He looks at the money and laughs. I quickly explain what happens and he doesn’t seem interested in the least. However, the Himba follow me to the truck and demand money.
I explain the situation to Wil, and in an effort to appease them (after all, we are spending an hour and a half in their village the next day and I don’t want to prejudice them against the group and/or kill me in my sleep), I give them 20 Namibian dollars (USD 3) and they storm off, still angry. Hopefully we won’t be going to their exact village tomorrow or it could be very awkward…
We reach Otjitotongwe Cheetah Park just after lunch, a large managed sanctuary which takes in cheetahs that have been injured or poisoned by farmers. They’re cared for, but unfortunately, will never be released back into the wild as they have become used to seeing humans and associating them with food. There is also a tame giraffe about 3 meters tall. He wants to play, and that means swinging his head like a sledgehammer…
There are also three cheetah that are almost totally tame and allow us to stroke them around the face and ears. Their fur is in between soft and coarse and their lithe bodies in action are a joy to behold as they scamper around the yard, climb trees and play with the owner’s dogs. We are reduced to wondrous children around them as we follow them around the yard.
In an unnatural reversal, we have become the stalkers. There are two other groups there, and earlier I catch one of the other tour leaders say to her group, ‘That’s Africa In Focus. All they do is go around taking photos’. We have a good laugh about it but the truth comes out when we are the only ones flat on our stomachs in a semi-circle around the cheetahs taking artsy photos.
We are then taken into a larger enclosure where the semi-wild cheetahs are, and they emerge from the brush, 8 or 9 at a time, and are fed hunks of donkey meat. The way they stare while waiting for their meal is disconcerting. George gives us some tips on capturing movement, but it is infuriatingly difficult to gauge exactly where the meat will land and capture the cheetahs in the frame as they leap and grab in acrobatic twists. The winner quickly takes his prize away to be eaten alone. A separate enclosure houses juvenile cheetahs.
In the morning, none of the bathrooms or showers have water and we grumble as we leave for the Himba village. Some of the more resourceful in our group take a dip / bath in the swimming pool instead…
Travel tips: (1) For this type of extended camping trip, remember to pack a twisted bungee cord type laundry line – easy to set up and clothes stay on the line even on a windy day. (2) If you’re into items made from animals skins like zebra and kudu, a stop at the leather shop in Outjo is a must. I ended up buying beautiful zebra skin sandals for USD 30, much cheaper than anywhere else I saw them on the rest of the trip.