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Namibian Off Road Holiday

Day 1: We set off early from home on our Namibian off road holiday and travel west through Herman Charles Bosman country to the Botswana border. Things don’t seem so good in the Groot Marico anymore. It is not just our cities that are in trouble – the words of W B Yeats come to mind – “the centre cannot hold and things fall apart”. Example: At the Caltex garage in Zeerust, only one pump in five had petrol. All the cars queue for the one pump. At the BP Garage in Groot Marico town there was no petrol – that is because there was no electricity. And the toilets were too dirty to use. It reminded me of Swaziland twenty years ago ( I wonder what that place is like now?) We cross into the Land of the White Bakkie (Botswana) and proceed towards Ghanzi in north-western Botswana. This is a very empty country and the roads are very long and straight. A 1000 km leg this, so quite strenuous. Fortunately the country is pleasant green bushveld, rolling on for kilometre after kilometre. Half way along the Trans-Kalahari Highway we stop at Kang for fuel . A sad site greets our eyes – a seized three door Disco, but the diesel, not the petrol-engined version like mine. The car had blown a radiator hose. (The diesels are prone to this, not the V-8’s.) The owner had phoned Land Rover on Call and they were sending a truck from Gaborone to collect the vehicle.

Day 2: We cross into the Other Land of the White Bakkie (Namibia) and spend the night at Windhoek. That is the advantage of the Botswana route – it cuts a day of the Johannesburg-Windhoek run. Windhoek is very impressive in some ways: no litter, few hawkers, those that exist are in controlled areas. The cleanest city in Africa, for sure. In other ways, however, Namibia is just like home – we passed through Gobabis on the very day that there was a horrific murder of a farming family in the area – mother and father shot, children of six and seven beaten to death with a stick. Several other murders reported in the papers – we soon stopped reading.
 
Day 3: We overnight at Palmwag, in the rock desert south-west of Etosha. One of the famous desert elephants is in attendance at the camp. How these huge beasts exist in these food-scarce surroundings is a wonder of nature. They make use of the roads to forage – the footprints are visible on the roads all over, taking a turn off road here to eat from a bush, then we see the tracks return to the road, etc.
Palmwag is rustic, but not cheap. The food is excellent. We have gemsbok for dinner – delicious! Pity the management have such an attitude.

Skeleton Coast, Walvis and Swakopmund

Day 4: West to the Skeleton Coast. While still in the rock desert we see Ludwig’s Bustard, a new one for my list. We also see Welwitchias for the first time (That’s a plant, not a bird.) They form an ecosystem in themselves, providing food and shelter for ants and two types of beetles, one bright red. That gecko, the one you see in the advert with the windscreen wiper tongue, hangs around, presumably eating the ants.

As we near the coast all the colours change – we experience the strangest shades of blue, grey and white in sky, sea and earth. Sometimes the sea is the most brilliant light blue you could imagine – a pity the photos taken with our point-and-shoot photograph technology cannot do the place justice. An artist would use a simple palette here, with a few, but brilliant, colours.

 

One photo, worthy of mention, is of the Disco climbing back up from the coast, a small green object in an expanse of white sand, with the brilliant blue sea and sky behind it. It looks like a photo out of a Land Rover advertising brochure. I am sending in the picture to Land Rover, to see what they think of it.
 We visit Toscanini, where they used to mine for diamonds and then move onto Cape Cross. Here the Portuguese mariners planted a cross over five hundred years ago, in the 1400’s. ( Makes van Riebeek look like the new boy on the block). It is also a African Fur Seal colony. Life is tough for fur seal pups – 20% of them never make it off the beach, usually killed by being crushed by the clumsy males. The little black pups have the saddest faces in the animal kingdom, I think. They also must have a peculiar sense of smell to be able to live in their environment! The stench of a seal colony cannot be described, only experienced. It is the strongest smell I have ever smelt, bar none.
We end the day at Walvis Bay, a sort of Brakpan-by-the-Sea. Architecturally, Swakopmund up the road is a lot more interesting with its 19th century German buildings.
We stay at the Protea Hotel in Walvis where we get two nights free accommodation because of our previous stays in Protea hotels. This Protea card system really is quite good. We are also surprised by the service. The manager could just be the Best Hotel Manager on Earth. Talk about customer service. Nothing is too much trouble. A German chap, he could teach his compatriots at Palmwag a thing or two.
 
Day 5: Walvis and Swakopmund and my second new bird siting of the trip – the rare Damara Tern, on the beach at Walvis.

Namib and Sossusvlei

Day 6: We move due east back into the Namib. I bag another two species, Gray’s Lark and the Namib race of the Tractrac Chat. On towards Sossusvlei, where I damaged my Kombi on the previous trip. Should I not have said “I’ll be back”? Does the Namib have ways of making you eat your words? Passing through a river canyon en route to Sossus, there is a tempting little ramp off the bridge down into the dry river bed and a 4x4 track in the river bed. So we have a go – perhaps there were some good photo opportunities around the corner, with the high walls of black rock on either side and the riverine vegetation. Nothing interesting after ˝ km, so I turn around off the track and the Disco sinks into the sand up to the differential at the back - and we are also in trouble at the front. I am amazed by the power of the sand – it is like it bites at the wheels. In low ratio first or second, when I take my foot of the throttle, everything stops with a bang. It is like the brakes are seized on. The Disco is like an ant in the grip of a giant antlion.

Had I let the tyres down to 100 kpa? the smart guys will say. Well, no – I only have a foot pump for re-pressurising and anyway I had just been doing this on the beach at Walvis the previous day without any trouble while watching a two wheel drive bakkie getting stuck and being pulled out. What the real experts will tell you is that there will always be that bit of sand that will get you, no matter how experienced you are. I read in a recent edition of one of the Land Rover magazines of a brand new Discovery that had to be left in the desert in Dubai, sunk up to over the axles, with the recovery logistics and economics ruling out any salvation for the stricken vehicle. Do not fear the desert, but respect it – it is a worthy adversary.
It is 11.00 am, the air temperature is in the middle thirties and getting hotter – the dark grey sand in the riverbed is too hot to touch, probably at about 50 degrees. I have no shovel, no sand ladders, no winch. I advise my wife and daughter to wear jerseys, despite the heat, to protect their arms and shoulders from the sun. I find a flat rock and with it remove the top layer of very hot sand then start digging with my hands, while my wife and daughter collect flat rocks from the canyon sides and floor, wherever the shade ensures they are not too hot to touch.
It takes five separate jacking operations to free the stricken vehicle – seven if you count the two failed attempts when the car slid sideways off the jack. Do you want the details? – jack the right hand back chassis – yes, I know the manual says not to jack on the chassis but I have to jack where I have access and there is no way I can get the jack under an axle. So, jack up under chassis, place rocks under chassis, remove jack. Place jack under middle of chassis on right hand side and jack. Place rocks next to jack. Remove rocks from rear of chassis. Let chassis down on rocks in the centre. Axle is now high enough to get jack under axle. Jack and place rocks. Remove rocks from chassis. Dig under wheel by hand and place rocks under the tyre. Let jack down. Remove jack, and so on and so on…. After about an hour , with the family pushing, I ride the car out on a hand-made road of rocks, back onto the original track. I tell my family that once I get going, I am not stopping for anything. They have to walk the ˝ km back to the road with jack, and other tools. No Sandton pavement parkers, we.
 
Day 7: So we finally make our return to Sossusvlei after three years. Sossusvlei is, I think about art and atmosphere, more than anything. It is about shades of red and brown and yellow, about light and shade. Our point-and-shoot photos, developed in these automatic machines in the malls once again cannot do justice to the place. A painting by David Shepherd might. Sossusvlei is about huge red dunes standing behind fields of bright yellow grass with impossibly blue sky for a backdrop and gemsbok in the foreground. And it is about heat; 40 degree plus heat. You visit the dunes early in the morning or late in the afternoon. The rest of the day is spent in the lodge pool, for reasons of survival as much as enjoyment.
 
Day 8: The next day my daughter and I take a balloon trip – our pilot is a young Belgian and the other nine passengers are TA’s (travel agents) from England, getting a free ride courtesy of one of the local lodge owners, in the hope that they will market his lodge in future. One of the agents is very specialized – he organizes birding safaris and has a life list of over 5000 birds. Apparently birding is very big in the UK. This gentlest and most eco-friendly of pastimes fits the stereotype of the polite English I suppose. ( “..and laughter learned of friends, and gentleness in hearts at peace, under an English heaven “ – as in the poem by Rupert Brooke). The reality of course is different – one of the TA’s was closer to the stereotype of the English soccer fan – flippant, loud, extrovert and annoying, with everything a bit of a joke. It takes all kinds of course.

But to return to the balloon- has anybody ever explained to you how you get into one of these things? They first blow up the envelope with engine driven fans, then start the propane burner. As the thing starts to fill and rise from horizontal to vertical you crawl sideways into the basket, which then upends with most passengers now standing on their heads! If this is not done smartly, so that not enough people get in, then there is not enough weight and the whole thing just drifts away across the sand while the air in the envelope cools down. We all make it in OK and then we refire the burners and have liftoff, to use NASA terminology.

After about an hour at 400 m above the Namib, and 240 litres of propane later, we land behind a dune. The ground crew of four has to scramble up and down the dune to reach us. We then re-ascend above the dune and are pulled over it with a tether. Our pilot then asks for volunteers to help the ground crew pull the balloon back to the launch vehicle. ( Why it could not come to us, is not explained.) I and two others jump out and assist the ground crew in pulling the basket, at about a metre above the ground, back the km or so to the truck. Splendid and imperial and grand for the remaining passengers but very hard work for the pullers. We float the balloon neatly onto the trailer of the Unimog and it settles down as the air cools. Then it’s breakfast in the desert.
And for the second time I see my last new species of the trip – the Ludwig’s Bustard. I had hoped to break 500 on this trip but with the four new sightings, my list is only at 494.
 
Day 9: The holiday is over, now for the long trip home. Our first stop is at Keetmanshoop,
a bedraggled, sun blasted dorp in southern Namibia. The only thing the place has going for it is a reasonable hotel where we overnight. (The hotel is reasonable, not the food – forget about the food) And still the 40 degree heat.
 
Day 10: Next stop Upington, back in the RSA. This place is also 40 degrees in the shade and would look like Keetmanshoop if it wasn’t for the Orange/Gariep/Groot River (Groot seems the name of choice in the town). This is the kind of place where if you don’t speak Afrikaans you will feel as lost as if you were in Paris. But it is a very pleasant town. We spend the rest of the day buying dried fruit and looking to buy indigenous succulents
 
Day 11: The last leg home – exactly 800 kilometres, making about 5500 km in total. Now to plan for the next trip.

submitted by Edgar Bradley

 

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