Monday, 31 August 2015

Day 21: Epupa Falls to Swartbooidrift - Kunene River Lodge

The big decision about today was which route to take from Epupa to Kunene River Lodge. The first option was to follow the river, a pretty route, for around 80km. Option 2 was 160km, retracing our route in for 70km, with little change in vegetation along the way.  Option 1 sounds like no brainier, however, upon investigation, we got various reports but the jist was the first 20km to 30km was on a newly made good road, then about 20km of track, followed by around 15km of real rough, tyre wrecking stuff. The total length of the trip, according to various reports, varied between 5 and 9 hours. Option 2 around 3 ½ hours. The clincher to take option 2 however, was the report from the head of the road construction company, who was also staying at Epupa. Construction had been halted as they had come across land mines, remnants from the bush war. He was up here to meet with the Namibian Police regarding having the area swept and demined.

We set off around 9:15, passing the Zebra Mountains on our way to Okangwati. From there we turned left,  retracing our steps on the Opuwa Road. Then we turned left towards Swartbooidrift, where we stopped for our first break, with the goats and cows. Or so we thought, next thing we had some local children come begging. We gave them pens and pencils but they asked for anything they could see in the car.

The terrain along this road was rocky, with no ground vegetation and littered with mopani trees and Himba villages.

Three kilometers from Kunene River Lodge, at Otjitunda, we stopped at the memorials and graves of the Dorsland Trekkers. The history of Namibia is as interesting as it is difficult and at times cruel and violent. The story of the Dorsland Trekkers (Thirst land Trek) I found particularly interesting. It took place from 1880 onwards, with Boer settlers from South Africa moving north, in search of political independence and better living conditions. Their primary destination was the Humpata Highlands in south-western Angola. On their journey up they traversed the vast, arid areas of the Kalahari desert and into Namibia and Botswana. The communities formed a closed community and resisted integration and innovation, brining impoverishment to many. After World War 1, there was dissension with the Portuguese Government in Angola regarding language, culture and religion and citizenship. Around 2000 Trekkers moved south into this area of what was then South West Africa. At Epupa I chatted to one of the ladies working there who was a descendant of a Himba mother and a Dorsland Trekker father. Life has never been easy for anyone in this area.

This lodge is run by an English couple, Peter and Hillary. It is on the banks of the river, although our rooms didn't have water frontage. There is a large deck, restaurant area, that overlooks the water. There is a beautiful overgrown garden with lush lawns, a welcome respite from the harsh conditions we have seen in the rest of the area.

We had a relaxing afternoon walking around the gardens and chilling on our patio. Al gave the girls a much needed pedicure, Gray ‘sawed wood’ and the other boys went birding. Then it was ‘cocktail on Kunene’ time, I had a mean PiƱa colada. The cacophony of noise on the Angolan bank across the river, in the reeds, was made by some 6000 chestnut weavers. Cocktails were followed by a delicious dinner on the deck. Topped off by a beautiful red full moon shimmering on the water.

Day 20: Epupa Falls

I woke to the sounds of the waterfall and a haze of spray. No curtains to open, just a view; water and rocks, greenery and palms and the mountains of Angola on the opposite bank.

The falls are not the highest or the widest I have seen, not as impressive as Victoria falls, but the first fall does feed into the narrowest gorge I have seen. Epupa is a Herero word meaning ‘foam’ and is known as the Monte Negro Falls in Angola. The River drops in a series of waterfalls spread over 1.5km, with the greatest drop (right outside our room) being 37m.

At breakfast we saw a huge croc sunning itself on a rock. George and Sue then headed upstream on a birding expedition and the rest of us set off around 9, on a hike downstream to explore the falls. The thin gorge around the first fall is framed with fig trees, makalani palms, but most impressive are the baobabs that cling to the cliff walls, similar to a rock fig.

The first part of our hike took us along a narrow mountain path, with a good 100m plus drop into the gorge below, the path dropped down to an area of boulders that we had to negotiate up and down. We saw other sections of the falls and tributaries of the river, it was stunningly beautiful. An hour later we walked down a dune to the river edge. All thoughts of modesty and croc infested waters went out the window. We stripped down semi-commando and headed into the cool water for a swim – I could have stayed there forever.
We continued down stream for another ½ hour and had a water break (lucky dad had his back girls - family joke - it was so useful to carry water in). We found a path back that avoided the boulders but not the cliff hugging track. I was relieved the kids weren't with us (miss you all). We arrived back around 12, I so loved this hike.

We then headed up for a well deserved drink and lunch. Back at our hut we saw a water monitor and common waxbills. There are also lots of big agama lizards scurrying up the trees and behind the rocks here.

In the afternoon, Gray and I went for a drive upriver. As we passed over the mountain and saw the green valley meandering through it, Gray said that in the army they had flown in Pumas and a Dakota, at tree top height along this valley. Being in this area is bringing back a lot of army memories. We  drove on in the shade of the makalani palms and saw vervet monkeys and Ruppell’s Parrots.  We also passed Himba villagers with their goats and pigs. 

As the sun was beginning to set we headed up a mountain overlooking the Kunene and the falls, it was amazing to see the area from above; more tributaries, islands and waterfalls than you see at ground level. The others joined us for drinks and to watch the sun set. George and Sue had had the most excitement of the afternoon, while out looking for birds they had a rinkhals rear up at them.

Another great dinner followed, lots of laughs and an early night.

I loved our stay at Epupa falls, the camp was run by Koos Vewey, a very interesting man, who does a lot for the area and the local community.

Day 19: Opuwo to Epupa Falls

I think we go camping because it makes us appreciate home comforts more.

We woke up feeling refreshed and ready for the day. Except for Tony and Al who had some guy banging around all night in the room next to them, they thought it was George and Sue, until the man started his 4 o’ clock Muslim prayer chants. This caused much hilarity at breakfast – with George and Sue being newly weds.

After a hearty hotel breakfast, including omelettes and crumpets we were on our way. A 180km drive to our next destination, a two night stay at Epupa Falls.

Our first stop was at Opuwo to fill up with diesel, buy NTC air time and cool drinks. The town, although extremely dusty had no litter. We had an extended stop at a 4 way intersection while 2 piglets crossed the road.  What strikes you most are the eclectic mix of cultures; Damaras, Ovambos, Hereros, Himbas and 6 South African whities.

The two cultures that stand out are the Hereros and Himbas due to their difference in dress from western culture.

Hereros are traditionally cattle herding pastoralists, their status in the community being rated on the number of cattle owned. They were however, heavily influenced by western culture during the colonial period, pretty much creating a new identity. The women, especially, wear dresses along the style worn by colonial Europeans.  They have however, added their own African flavor in terms of the bright and beautiful African print materials used.

The Ovahimbas are indigenous to Northern Namibia, with an estimated 50 000 living here. They are semi-nomadic pastoral people. In remote regions, they are considered amongst the last of the hunter-gatherers. They are polygamous, with arranged marriages and females in the tribe perform most of the labour intensive work, this is reminiscent of the Masai of Kenya and Tanzania. The Himbas wear traditional clothing that befits the hot semi-arid climate of Kaokoland. This consists of skirts made traditionally from calf skins. They are most famously known for covering themselves with otjize paste; a mixture of butterfat and ochre pigment, perfumed with aromatic resin of the omasum shrub. This gives their skin a red/orange/rust colour and apparently cleanses the skin over long periods, due to a scarcity of water and protects them from mosquitoes. Hairstyles and jewelry play a significant role, indicating age and social status in the community. Women wear headpieces, sculptured from sheepskin, with streams of braided hair, colored and shaped with otjize paste.

The road out of town was sandy and in need of repair, there were road works being done, and numerous narrow low lying bridges, all in all, making driving conditions bumpy and difficult. This was the busiest road we have been on since Swakopmund. The surrounding area was predominantly mopani  and acacia trees, with no ground vegetation. There were numerous herds of goats and we were continually stopping or slowing down for them, they were tended to by boys, some looked as young as around 5 or 6.

At Okangwati we turned right and drove along a few kilometers of lush vegetation with palm trees, before long it had returned to Mopani territory, with a few baobabs. We passed the zebra mountains on our right, well known for their striped appearance.

Eventually we came over a rise and the dry red sand of the past 4 hour drive turned into an oasis of green palm trees. We arrived at Epupa Falls lodge around 1. OMG!!! this is absolutely beautiful, a real running river after almost 3 weeks of desert and dry river beds. From desert to jungle – we are so privileged to be experiencing such remote and amazing places. We're have now travelled from the southern most tip to northern border of Namibia.

Our thatched roof, wooden-reed hut is on stilts, right on the banks of the river. We have a view overlooking the top of the Epupa Falls on the Kunene. The room is open aired with no windows. On the opposite side of the river we look into Angola. Gray recalled being in this area of Namibia and unofficially in Angola, in the early ‘80’s, while fighting in the bush war. At one point they landed a helicopter here to pick up the body of one of their soldiers who had been washed over the falls.

We went for a drink to the central wooden stilted bar and food area. Here we saw a rufous-tailed palm thrush – this is the only place in the world where they are found, another lifer for us all. The temperature is in the early 30 degrees and I would love to go for a swim in the river but we have been warned about big crocs lurking around.

After spending some time reading, really being more distracted by the view, the birds, the flowing water – I gave up. The heat got the better of us and we took a walk to the edge of the falls and couldn't resist a swim. The water was wonderfully cool and refreshing. We had some local Himba children come and watch us. When the men arrived and started stripping down for their evening wash, Al and I got out pretty quickly. George and Sue had gone on a bird finding walk down the river.

Dinner and drinks on the deck saw the last of the sun’s rays and an almost full moon rising between the makalani palms. Thankfully the heat had been replaced by a cold breeze and the spray from the falls.

I went to bed in our ‘George of the Jungle’ hut and was lulled to sleep listening to the sounds of the waterfall.

Friday, 28 August 2015

Day 18: Sesfontein to Opuwo.

Today was to be a chilled day. A 130km trip to Opuwo, estimated 3 hour journey.  We were relaxing, chilling over coffee, round the fire. The laugh this morning was on Panda, he alighted from our tent wearing a ‘2 tone’ khaki shirt – a BIG no-no in our circles. Then it started to rain, this only happens when the Morrison’s camp. As it let up, I went for an open air shower, rudimentary constricted, but warm.

Then it started raining again, so we packed up in the rain, dust turning to mud – camping can just be so much fun. As we set off off the rain stopped and the sun peaked through the clouds.

As we headed along the well maintained dirt road, we discovered the other half of Sesfontein; more houses, a school, a few shops and a police station. After a couple of kilometers we turned left onto the Opuwo road…..and it was closed, due to blasting. So much for the chilled day.

Plan B took us on a detour of the C43, it was a mountainous area, the mountains as opposed to what we were used to, were filled with trees. The road was stony and rutted. At our first travel break, I got out the car and stepped into elephant dung, wearing slops.  My Salamon’s are in serious need of a clean after yesterday's stuck vehicle episode – funny all the girls have different footwear on today.

We passed a tiny village with a few scattered huts. Outside one, was a lady dressed in traditional Herero dress, sitting on a chair with about 10 children, gathered around her, seated on the ground. The local school, no playground and no facilities – our children at St Stithians do not know how fortunate they are.

The areas we passed through were very rural, dotted villages with cattle, goats and donkeys. Some of the trees had started sprouting blossoms – I guess we are a week away from spring. Our second smoke break, had the bird watches all excited with lots of the little critters flying around the area.

We had passed over the Beesvlakte and through Ombombo. We saw kudu, springbok and ostriches.  As we got further north, I was excited to see my favorite trees, for the first time in Namibia, the Baobab. With 14 km to Opuwo, we turned left onto a tarred road and headed into the first roadblock of the trip, we were waved through and headed off to find a campsite for the night. 

Opuwo is the biggest town in the Northern Territory and capital of the Kunene Region – it is a typical African town – rural town merging with modern centers, bustling and busy. We drove through the town, passed through a suburb of small houses, with not a blade of grass. We drove up a mountain track, according to GPS coordinates, to the only camp place we could find (according to the Namibia  Book Guide). We arrived at a padlocked gate to a rather dodgy looking place. I phoned the number in the book and a central reservation person told me that they had sold the hotel and attached camp site a few years back…. Chilled day ??? Then Soxy, a guardian angel appeared at the gate, she informed us that there was a lodge was across the next hill, we made space in the car, she hopped in and took us along a rather precarious road to the Opuwa Country Hotel and Camp site. 

This looked a whole lot more inviting, in fact so inviting that the girls promised the men body and soul, literally, to stay in the rooms for the night.  I have always said I don't mind camping for 4 nights, then I want a proper bed and hot shower – wish granted. 

We moved into our rooms and headed off to the verandah for lunch.  It has a spectacular view over an infinity pool in to the valley below. Two o’clock and they refused to serve us lunch as the chef had knocked off. No problem, we ordered drinks, fetched crackers, cheese and cold meat from the car and made our own lunch at the hotel. 

Tony, Al, George and Sue headed into the hot, dusty, busy town for a few necessities; like new slops and a mattress for George, the former stolen and lost  - a lost mattress??...don't ask. For Al shopping is just a necessity.  Gray and I chilled on the verandah, playing with their charcoal grey cat and then in our air conditioned room – bliss.

As we had defrosted meat in preparation for our camp out,  we headed off to the camp area for a braai. Ironically this was the best camp site we have encountered so far – in our experience in Africa, camp areas attached to hotels are always the best and they give you full use of hotel facilities, such as the swimming pool, bar and restaurants. I think our braai was better than the hotel buffet. The meat from the butchery in Swakopmund has been amazing.

 We then returned to the hotel for coffee and to catch up on admin – with an extremely slow wi-if we eventually gave up. I really appreciated going to bed in a bed.

(Apologies for the duplication of photos in Day 16. Comms, or rather the lack of them, make posts difficult at the best of times).

Day 17: Palmwag Concession to Sesfontein.

I woke to the sound of nothing, no loud Spanglish, not even a bird. I read for ½ an hour, then Gray and I got up, he lit a fire and we sat in the dark waiting for the sun to rise. A special time…. but not for long. The kettle boiled, George arrived, then the rest of the gang. Condensed milk coffee time in the morning is always a good catch up on how we all slept.

I had a hot bush shower (thanks Gray). Even a ‘boskak’- if joked about enough, it’s not so bad. I think I have gone over to the dark side, with the other girls edging towards the fence – I really enjoyed being self sufficient, in the middle of nowhere, with no one around.

We packed up, leaving only our footprint behind, and that would soon be covered by the desert sand. Our first sighting of the day – springbok again.

Once out the river bed, the terrain was stark and rocky with vey sparse vegetation. The track then led us into the valleys of a mountainous region, similar to the Kuiseb Valley. Here we passed another vehicle, the first we had seen in 24 hours. We then drove through the a river bed, a tributary of the Mudorib River. Stopping for a tea break, in a beautiful area, there must be underground water, as there are these beautiful old trees, that have survived for hundreds of years in harsh conditions. The drive through the valley was spectacular with lots of green trees.  We saw lots of desert giraffe, they are extremely light in colour.

Sue is a geologist and loved being able to see the different layers of rock in the surrounding mountains, free of vegetation (apologies to all geologically inclined - I'm know there are geological terms for the amazing areas in Namibia, unfortunately my knowledge on the subject is non existent, so I report it as I see it).

Our next stop was Amspoort Gorge, where we came across the first water hole in the park. Little water and lots of birds; we spent some time birding and admiring the view before heading into the Hoanib River bed for the next section of the days trip.

The Hoanib River Valley is truly spectacular.  We drove through a sandy river bed, filled with lush green vegetation and tall trees. We were dwarfed by high grey mountains and the odd sand dune. A great contrast of colours. There was lots of evidence of ellies, and then there she was a beautiful desert elephant foraging on the side of the banks. On the opposite side was a little steenbok.

At our picnic stop, under one of the tall old trees we saw lots of cat spoor. Then we saw springbok and a giraffe – this one was a lot darker than those we had seen before. Next, on top of a river bank, appeared 3 ellies. Two adults and a little one, I guess in this neck of the woods it would be considered a breeding herd.

Later we came across water, not a flowing river, but big pools surrounded by bull rushes, reeds and abundant with bird life.  We were fortunate to see Ellie again, a real breeding herd  this time of at least 10.

The only way to travel the Hoanib Valley is through the river bed and as the river was in flood on our last trip, we were unable to access the area. I am so glad we got to do it this time, it is a very beautiful and special place. I could spend weeks exploring this remote area.

On exiting the park, we went through 18km of very fine desert sand, it was like powder and we saw a herd of desert giraffe. We also had a few drops of rain.

The Camelmen loved their 4x4ing today; from rocks to sand to mud and water… but the valley driving was not the end of it !!!

12km to our destination for the day we hit a 100m hilly patch of deep talc sand. 20m from the end we bellied up on the fine sand, our chassis was stuck on a sand bank.  At the same time Tony radioed in to say he was stuck on the previous hillock. Spades out, wood collected, much revving but we were stuck fast. I tried to walk in the track and the sand took me up to mid calf. During all this it started to rain – in the desert!!!.  George managed to pull Tony out, the girls found the best route out for  him and then it was our turn for the Pajero Recovery unit. As this was going down Tony got stuck on the hill coming up to our Discovery. Three / Nil to the Pajero – yah George!.. And in the rain.

Sesfontein, named after the six fountains found in the area, is a tiny rural place with a few mud houses and lots of goats.  After checking out one or two of the local camp sites (literally clearings under trees with the goats). We selected Camel Top (the boys insisted on calling it ‘Camel Toe’), named I guess because we are camping at the base of a camel hump shaped mountain. The camp site is community based, they have gone to a lot of trouble to make it nice and we were happy to support them.

We were the only people around and settled down for our evening drink. First we were visited by a mangy little puppy and then a cape turtle dove.  Cotton had wound the doves legs together and it was struggling to hop around.  The next hour was spent, using various methods trying to catch the bird. Eventually, the guys succeeded in catching it and another 15 minutes freeing it and one happy dove flew off.

We had delicious Oryx steak, salad and homemade bread and ice creams for dinner – pretty decent considering we have been off the grid for 4 days.

There were some great birds in the area; we saw a Monteiro’s hornbill, crimson breasted shrike and went to bed to the sounds of a pearl spotted owl.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Day 16: Palmwag Concession

I didn't have a great start to the day. I was woken at 04:45, with a headache (unusual and not caused by alcohol) by the Spaniards, clearly they had an earlier start than we did. Before my day, starts – anywhere – I have to have a shower, today it was coooold.

Gray has toured this area before and found camping spots in the bush to set up camp, his plan for this part of the trip…..however, with much pressure from the girls and extra planning along the way, he has found designated camp sites. So if we have noise and cold showers – we need to suck it up.

Having bought permits for the Palmwag Concession, we entered the area at 8:30. The concession is a protected wildlife area. Our first sighting was springbok. The terrain is rocky with interesting vegetation and the biggest Melkbos plants I have ever seen.

We were fortunate to have seen a herd of  desert elephants in the river bed. These ellies appear to have longer legs and slimmer bodies than their South Africa cousins. Next was a herd of mountain zebra, they have a white undercarriage. Then gemsbok, ostrich, giraffe, jackal, kudu – loving this game reserve, I was back in my happy space – lappet faced vulture, herds and more herds of zebra. 

At one point we were looking at this mirage (heat haze) ahead of us, it literally looked like sea in the desert. Before we knew it, we had 4 gemsbok galloping across the plain in front of us – such an awesome sight.

It took us 3 ½ hours to do 45km. It was a very pleasant drive through the conservancy, with some definite 4x4 areas, specifically in and out the rocky river beds. There are 8 designated camp sites, basically clearings, as you have to be totally self sufficient to camp here.  We stopped at ‘Camp 3’ for our picnic lunch.  The highlight, besides Al’s veldie, was George producing Magnum ice creams from his freezer.

The afternoon drive ended at Camp .. ‘In the middle of nowhere’.. in the dry Hunkab River bed (it was not a dedicated site). The area was desolate with very little vegetation and far less animals, fewer river beds and obviously less water. The only signs of life were sparsely scattered welwitchias. 

At around 3 we stopped in the river bed next to a cliff and set up camp.  The first thing we saw were lion spoor, we've had worse; we've had the actual lions outside our tent in Botswana and ellies and hippo in Zambia. The boys have been dreaming about this night (sorry for the girls – it was too far to go to any camp site). I have to be honest, sitting in the river bed, just the 6 of us, sipping on our drinks, watching the African sunset, this is a piece of heaven.

We finished eating around the campfire as the last of the daylight merged with the waxing moon. We were tucked up in our tents by 7:30, after another hard and exciting day.

Day 15: Brandberg to Palmwag

Considering my sleeping conditions, the desert floor is very hard, I had a fairly good nights sleep. We woke to a chilly winter morning and an amazing sunrise, literally a red ball rising in the east. After a shower and breakfast we disassembled the camp site. The first night of set up and take down is always a bit rusty but we were ready to leave by 8:30, after jump starting Tony’s car.  

Today we travelled from Damaraland into the Kaokoveld. 
The first stretch this morning was along a freshly graded road, what a pleasure. There is a fair amount of vegetation around. We came to a T-junction,  with the mountain behind us we turned left to Khorixas. We passed villagers of Hereros and Ovahimbas posing on the side of the road. We passed over mountainous regions with a variety of biomes, including areas of euphorbia and mopani. 

We stopped for a quick leg stretch, George headed off to find bird species, the girls discussed welwitschias – so academic – and Gray & Tony had the bonnet of Tony’s car open, sorting out battery systems.  Al joked that that the Discovery driver has spent lots of time fixing the Prado.

On entry into the Khorixas  District we crossed the dry river bed of the Ugab River and into an area with Mopani tree vegetation.The area is more populated, the main mode of transport is donkey cart.

The last 8 km into Khorixas, was on tar. It is a neat, clean rural town. We stopped for fuel and headed along a hilly dirt road to the petrified forests. This morning we decided to forgo an arduous 2 hour mountain hike to visit the rock painting of the ‘White Lady’. We were however very happy to take the 800m tour of the Petrified Forest. A forest, it is not, it is dry and rocky and fascinating. The area boasts petrified pine trees that were washed down into the valley 280 million years ago. There are various minerals embedded in the wood. It is also an area of fascinating flora. The guide got a little concerned when I backed into a euphorbia bush (to take a pic), the poison of which is used by the bushman to dart animals. There are also a number of Welwitschia, but they are are smaller than those we saw yesterday. Our guide explained the difference between the male and female and their form of pollination. We really have become fascinated with these plants. We saw a few bird species and an agama (gecko).

The next gravel road stretch took us over an attractive mountain pass to Bergsig. We saw ellie dung but unfortunately no ellies.

Our final destination for the day was Bergsig. The town consisted of a few buildings, no shops or other amenities. Here we passed into a veterinary controlled area – we are not allowed to take meat or animals out this area – animals won't be a problem.

We camped at Palmwag under some beautiful….palms. After setting up we went for a walk along the river area. It is luscious and green along the river bed and we saw an elephant in the distance.  

Unfortunately an overlandtruck full of Spaniards arrived that evening and camped next to us. They were rather loud.