A desert dessert

A desert dessert

After two whole months, our Namibian overlanding adventure was nearing its end. But just as a glorious five-course meal is not complete without a sweet dessert, our expedition still had a last hurrah to look forward to: the Namib desert and its immediate surrounds! We explored it from north to south and put together our own recipe to make the perfect trip dessert from this wonderful desert.

1. Start with eggs

The birdlife of the Namib and its coastline is superb. Greater and lesser flamingos congregate in their thousands in the pans and estuaries near Walvis Bay throughout the year. Along with the Sandwich Harbour lagoon, this area forms the most important coastal wetland in southern Africa. Hundreds of resident, intra-African and Palaearctic migrant species congregate here. Some species depend vitally on it, such as the chestnut-banded plover of which 95% of the world’s population lives here. Moving down through the desert towards Aus is equally rewarding, with many fascinating (and difficult to identify) larks becoming the chief target. We loved exploring the areas with our binos and cameras, and added many wonderful species to our life list. Some of the many highlights included black-necked grebe, Eurasian whimbrel, Gray’s lark, Barlow’s lark, Herero chat, crowned cormorant and various plovers and terns.

2. Add a pinch of salt

Salt works is a major industry on the Namibian desert coastline, the largest of which is near Walvis Bay and Swakopmund. We camped at the very luxurious and manicured Alte Brűcke campsite for a few days to catch up on work (wi-fi is not a thing in the proper desert), restock and explore the wonderful town of Swakopmund. One very rarely hears negative things of Swakop, and we could see why – spotlessly clean streets, friendly people, a seaside promenade where you can walk safely at night (what?) and some of the best food we have ever tasted. Even though we usually try to minimise time in towns in favour of the wilderness, we wished we spent more time here. The butter-soft calamari from Jetty 1905, the top-notch flat white coffees from Slowtown, the beautiful historic streets and the relaxed seaside atmosphere are only some of the reasons why we will be back.

3. Mix the active ingredients

Let’s go for a hike in the desert. Said no one ever. Although the Namib-proper will kill anyone foolish enough to cross it on foot without enough water, there are some fantastic hiking trails in wild areas on the desert edge. One of these is the Namib-Naukluft Mountain Zebra National Park, a less-visited gem. We found camping here to be very peaceful, except in the mornings when raiding baboons created mayhem second to none. Namibia’s longest and toughest multi-day trail (no, it’s not the Fish River) runs through the valleys in this park. Various day-hikes are also on offer, such as the 12 km Olive Trail we opted for. Traversing beautiful mountains and then descending and following a narrow valley flanked by cliff faces, the trail is certainly not an easy one. However, our efforts were rewarded with spectacular views, unique geological features, and a sense of solitude that can only be found in Namibia’s wild places.

4. Bake until golden

The surrealistic golden landscapes of Sossusvlei attract tourists and photographers from around the globe. It is busy, but for good reason – where else can you walk through a forest that had died during the same time as Europe’s plague in the 1300’s? From Dune 45 and Big Daddy (some of the world’s highest sand dunes) to the dramatic Deadvlei, this is a place where you cannot but wonder. The desert is also alive with creatures of all sizes. We marvelled at a shy brown hyena, pronking springbok and small wonders such as the Namib desert beetle – a small creature that collects water from early morning fog through the bumps on its back. In the NamibRand Nature Reserve we were lucky enough to have many beautiful desert creatures visit our campsite. A hunting Cape fox, curious oryxes, hundreds of drinking Namaqua sandgrouse and shy bat-eared foxes all came to the party.

 5. Serve hot and enjoy!

The desert hides many secrets – from the many forgotten tales of those who perished there in search of diamonds to creatures that researchers are yet to discover. During the day heat waves simmer quietly as the red dunes hide many-horned adders and Namib-sand geckos. At night the coldness settles like a blanket while a million stars watch over your campfire. The Namib desert is indeed a place of dramatic contrasts and of intense beauty, and we cannot wait to be back for a second helping.

Some helpful trip information:

Swakopmund camping with wi-fi: https://altebrucke.com/ 

Coffee for the win: http://slowtowncoffee.com/ 

Calamari to die for: https://lighthousegroup.com.na/jetty-1905/ 

Naukluft Zebra Park campsite and hiking trails: -24.2640, 16.2387

A camping gem near Sossusvlei: https://www.littlesossus.net/ 

NamibRand Nature Reserve remote campsites: http://www.nrfhideout.com/

Palm-thrushes and papermouths

Palm-thrushes and papermouths

A place far, far away. It might sound like a fairy tale beginning, but the Kaokoveld (Kunene region) area in the far northern reaches of Namibia is indeed very far away from most places. Tucked away between the Kunene river on the Angolan border, the windswept skeleton coast and the Damaraland area towards the south, this brutal area is sparsely vegetated, dusty, and famously rocky. Some would even say Kaokoland has a lot of nothing. Why then, would one care to venture all the way to this forgotten corner of the world?

For many, the answer lies simply in the remote adventure to reach it, the dramatic landscapes or the unique and very traditional Himba tribe encountered there. For others, the rough and tough mountainous trails beckon them closer to go an put their (fool)hardy 4x4s through their paces – in particular the infamous Van Zyl’s pass where you can have a great time experimenting with remote tow-ins and spare parts delivery. At least afterwards you get to write your name in stone to commemorate your brave achievement and mourn your shattered radiator, steering rack and tyres. For us, the main drawcard is the lesser-known treasure trove of rare creatures hidden away in Kaokoland’s mysterious attic.

After challenging our sense of personal space while restocking in Opuwo, we travelled north and camped on the banks of a palm-fringed paradise – the Kunene river. In stark contrast with its arid environment and violent border war past, we loved the serenity and peace. Deo spent most of the evening replacing yet more roof-rack brackets thanks to the road corrugations and flimsy bracket design of the anonymous company (it rhymes with Front Gunner). Nevertheless, encamping under lush tree canopies with the hazy river snaking past lazily provided the perfect oasis.

Here we got to know some of its scarce local inhabitants such as the Rűppel’s parrot, Carp’s tit, Damara red-billed hornbill and the Adler’s robber – a tiny fish with a big personality, chasing down and grabbing small flies presented to it. Two of the most sought-after rare bird species on any birdwatcher’s wish list are near-endemic to the area. The rufous-tailed palm thrush lives exclusively in the Northern Lala palm trees found along the river and we were lucky enough to find a few during our stay. The beautiful Cinderella waxbill occurs along the riverine woodland and is threatened by the overgrazing of its habitat. Although we never saw it, we did hear it once (guess we will have to come back for it).

A track less travelled leads west along the river, and taking it made all the difference (as Robert Frost might put it). With dramatic mountains towering all around us, the rocky trail traversed beautiful tributaries, climbed up wow-inducing viewpoints and opened up to majestic vistas. Next to us the river changed its personality from calm pools to excited riffles to angry rapids and back again. The road eventually led us to a place where the serene Kunene widens into braids before tumbling down a deep baobab-studded gorge in a spectacle of spray – the Epupa Falls.

For a few days we explored this magical and wild land, hiking up and down the unforgiving valley. Our quest was to land a Kunene papermouth. The papermouth is a rare, small, and very special fish species that has significantly reduced in numbers where it once occurred. Thought of as part of the yellowfish family, it is one of the more difficult and sought-after species to add to one’s life list of ‘yellows’ on fly. Interestingly, the strain endemic to the Kunene has a characteristic black spot behind its gills. Our search for it took us down deep ravines into valleys studded with river cataracts, through thick ana tree-studded woodlands and onto lonely sandbanks where the Kunene’s infamous crocs secretly sun themselves. Often the journey to the fish is the real reward and this was no different. And yes, in the end we landed and released two beautiful specimens.

Heading south via the Hoanib river, we made our way to the Skeleton Coast National Park. This is a place where endless dry desert meets the cold Atlantic and its burning shore. Where brown hyenas and black-backed jackals patrol the shoreline. Where the cold mist belt rarely lifts and waves crash on countless smooth pebbles. Where the coastline is dotted with rusty shipwrecks and animal bones. Kaokoland is also the only place in the world where you can find wild-roaming and rare desert-adapted lions. They have even been documented hunting seals on its pebbled beaches! We came close enough by finding their tracks in the Palmwag concession. We explored this vast and wild coastline, added beautiful birds such as the ruddy turnstone to our list, and fished (of course), managing to entice a few fat blacktail and galjoen from the rocky gullies.

So why do we care so much to find these rare creatures in a rare environment? Because they are still there. Because us humans haven’t yet fully managed to wipe out their far-flung and fragile habitat. Because they deserve to be seen, appreciated and protected for their and our sake. And perhaps they can – in this place of fairy tales. A place far, far away. A place named Kaokoland.

The Great White Place (of lions)

The Great White Place (of lions)

It is 2:30 AM and we are wide awake. Sitting alone next to Okaukeujo camp’s floodlit waterhole, we cradle mugs of scalding hot tea while trying to stay warm on the cold bench at this bewitching hour. We were awaken by the night-splitting roars of a pride of lions calling to each other from very close by. While the rest of the campsite snores happily, we have been shivering out here for the past hour, scanning the rock-strewn landscape around the waterhole for any sign of the cats. Just as we decide to call it quits, a tell-tale flicking of black ears catches our eyes. Two lionesses have been lying not 30 metres from us all this time in perfect camouflage! Then four more, including two beautiful males, soundlessly step into the light and join them. We watch them in quiet excitement until one of the lionesses suddenly trots away with the rest following in tow. As we reflect on this amazing encounter, we realise this pride takes our lion tally to 38 over the past week alone. Not that anyone is counting of course. 

Etosha National Park is one of the original reasons we decided to get into Baloo and start this amazing road trip lifestyle. Located in the Northern reaches of Namibia, it is a very far drive for most South Africans. After taking Baloo for a spa day (aka a general service) in Tsumeb, we headed to Etosha for an exciting eight days, spending some time in most of the camps. One of the oldest game reserves in Africa, it thankfully had a name change from imaginatively being called Game Reserve 2 in the early 1900s to Etosha, meaning the great white place. Fitting also, because it sure is great and, well, very chalky white. 

The main road follows the Southern edge of the Etosha pan, a massive expanse stretching hundreds of continuous kilometres. The landscapes of the park vary more than you would expect. Starting in the East around Namutoni camp and its historic fort, grassy plains and pans edged by camelthorns dominate the area. Denser acacia bushveld also occurs here, providing a home for species such as the near-endemic black-faced impala. Halali is situated next to rocky koppies, explaining why this is also the best place where you might encounter a leopard in the park. Okaukeujo is probably the most popular as a results of its beautiful waterhole. Its surroundings are the most sparsely vegetated in the park, reminding one of the expanses of the Karoo. The far Western area of the park is studded with beautiful granite outcrops and hills, providing a different ecosystem and in turn attracting different species of animals and birds.

Etosha is not for the faint-hearted. Like most arid parks, you have to put in the effort and cover vast distances between sightings. We averaged about 100 km per day, and most of the roads are pretty rough to downright horribly corrugated (our four broken roof rack support feet would tend to agree). A 4×4 isn’t strictly needed as in most other parks we have been in, and we even saw some VW Polos around, although I would hate to be the suspension on one of those. But if you spend the time, drive slowly, and sit patiently at the many dusty and rock-studded waterholes around, you might just get rewarded.

Some of the largest elephants in Africa, massive herds of springbok and zebra, journeys of up to twenty giraffes, rare Hartmann’s mountain zebra, and wide open landscapes as far as you can see are only some of the wonders we encountered. The park is also one of the very last strongholds of the endangered black rhino. It was a most rare privilege to have one inquisitively inspect our vehicle within touching distance, or to witness large socializing groups at night around the waterholes. We also came across a pair of Damara dik-diks, a cute little antelope with huge bulging eyes found only in Northern Namibia and South-western Angola.

Birding in this park is top notch. The pans held beautiful plains species such as the red-capped lark, chestnut-backed sparrow-lark, sabota lark and pink-billed lark. The waterholes revealed Kittlitz’s plover, common ringed plover and even a greater painted-snipe. Namibian specials such as bare-cheeked babbler and violet wood-hoopoe visited us for lunch in Halali camp. We marvelled at the sound of thousands of red-billed queleas drinking at Olifantsrus waterhole and witnessed a lightning-fast attack of two lanner falcons grabbing their daily lunch from the flock. In the Western reaches of the park a group of Ludwig’s bustards drank near Dolomite camp and a Monteiro’s hornbill rested in the shade of a mopani in the midday sun as we drove by.

Now about those lions. For some reason, the universe made up in this trip for our general lack of lion sightings over the last few years. Not a single day went by that we were not lucky enough to see a few of these enigmatic cats. Most were in the vicinity of waterholes, as can be expected during the dry season. We witnessed various prides not only lyin’ around (pun intended), but also hunting, socializing, and we even saw a big male roaring from about ten metres away. Very few things in this life are as impressive as the sound pressure emanating from a male lion declaring his territory to all. 

One does not come to Etosha for luxury camping or for pampered fine dining. At best the facilities can be described as quasi-spartan. But one does come to Etosha to witness Africa at its brutal best. To encounter desert-adapted animals used to the harsh realities of living in a ruthlessly arid place. To get your window-arm tanned, your forehead sweaty and your feet coated in and endless supply of fine Etosha dust. To learn something about the environment, your place in it and about this, the great white place.