Aardwolves to Zebras: Snippets from an African Diary

Friday: a very long and dusty day mostly on dirt roads as we drove into the Namib Desert to a private campsite. Strange trees along the way called quiver trees (kokerboom), which are really aloes, and large communal nests made by sociable weaver birds. Getting a little sick of Crowded House ‘Take the Weather with you.’ Stopped briefly at Seeheim Hotel to stock up on drinks and got licked to death by a mad bull-mastiff puppy. We continued to Bethanien, where Michael and I hunted down ice cream and anchovy paste, not to be eaten together I hastily add, then we stopped to eat lunch by the side of the road under the shade of the one tree in the area, only to be eaten alive by huge biting ants. Taking a shovel with me to go to the loo is a new experience.

We arrived at the campsite at three and were given warnings by the guides not to wander too far, to beware of the black mamba living in the nearby Moringa tree and take care not to get bitten by either of the two species of scorpion* as the nearest hospital was over 150 miles away. The camp itself was surrounded by several hills between the stark mountains in the distance and the red dune-land. We had a lovely braai then sat around drinking beers and looking at the stars before heading for bed around eleven. Note to self – don’t visit the toilet in the middle of the night.

*the paler scorpion with a small tail and large pincers is not deadly but the sting is like a double bee sting and the pain lasts for two weeks, the black scorpion with the long tail and small pincers is deadly, with more venom than the cape cobra.

Saturday: awoke early desperate for the loo, fortunately the moon was still out and dawn breaking so I could see my way without falling into a scorpion hole. I did see a sand spider though which gave me a nasty turn. Size of a bloody mouse! Nice loo actually and open air shower too, built of stone and cane with hessian cloth. Nifty! No point in returning to bed so watched the sun rise and a pretty black bird with white on its wings and a grey head going about its business. Attila the Hun told me later it was a desert chat. Today we are going on a dawn game drive!

The guide who lives here knows so much about the fauna and flora. We spotted a porcupine, silver fox, bat-eared fox, ground squirrels, a steenbok and gemsbok. We also climbed a ‘music’ mountain – the granite boulders make different sounds when struck so of course we had to have a go at creating an orchestra. Finally we climbed up a sand dune and watched the desert beetles at work; fascinating creatures – they have long legs and only breathe every 20 minutes. The last arrival was a ground lizard with a blue face that apparently attracts the females. Must admit he was kind of cute. My favourite sighting was the gemsbok. Such a magnificent animal. Back at camp I declined the eggs for brunch as they had been sitting in the bus for two days in 40° and some of the shells were cracked. I didn’t fancy salmonella so had an orange and cereal instead. Although the bus has a cooler compartment (kept cold by adding loads of ice when we can get it), there is no freezer and as the ice melts the beers and milk and water heat up.

The afternoon was hot, and long. We were told to rest as we were going on a night drive at 7 pm. but I was bored and hot and thirsty and longing for a really cold drink. I tried reading but couldn’t concentrate, I tried to join in a game of cards but Captain turned me away, so I left in a sulk and wrote about all the people on the truck. It’s odd being away like this, you lose complete sense of time. No newspapers, no TV, no phones no internet; the rest of the world could have blown up and crumbled away and we wouldn’t know. I like it – apart from the heat.

The night drive was interesting; seeing the scorpions in the flesh was quite enough, though the two geckos were cute. The large ground gecko was very pretty with feet like a baby’s hand so pink and soft, though it apparently bites like hell and doesn’t let go (like a bull dog apparently, fortunately I haven’t experienced that either) the other one was quite rare – almost translucent with webbed feet – the Namib Web Footed Gecko (Palmatogecko). We also saw bat-eared foxes, a cape fox, springbok, a barn owl (though goodness knows where the barn was) and an aardwolf. Early to bed as another very early start in the morning.

Sunday: we set off by six for the drive to Sesriem and onto Sossusvlei, one of the wildest and most spectacular spots in the desert. The best time to visit is dawn, but we didn’t arrive until 10:30 and it was already hot. The last 4 km was by a small 4WD vehicles into the dunes that rise up to 300m above a vast depression or clay pan. The scenery is extraordinary. The shapes, colours and textures; red, ochre and pink dunes; pale grey baked clay appearing startling white in the brightness, and stunted dehydrated camel thorn trees, but it was so hot that I felt as though I was burning from inside. When you can smell your nostril hairs singeing it is time to worry.

Returning to Sesriem, 65 km away, everybody made a dash for cold drinks. The journey to Swakopmund was over the KuisebPass with amazing views then through the Naukluft National Park where the landscape varied from semi-desert to lunar landscape then complete desert again. The long, hard, dusty gravel road is very hot and tiresome. From Walvis Bay we drove along the coast; after the desert it was good to see the ocean again.

Party, party, party. Our arrival in Swakopmund meant we had proper beds for two nights and access to bars and shops and restaurants! After showering away the desert sand we hit the bar – a double vodka and lemon later I was ready to walk to the Tug restaurant on the edge of the ocean. After butterfly prawns, Kabeljou, ½ bottle of wine and an Amarula coffee I went to Fagin’s bar with some of the gang where we had a few more vodkas before going on to find a nightclub. The only one we found had closed at midnight so back to the inn it was. Needless to say I slept like a baby.

Monday: Stocked up in town on essentials such as beer, wine and coffee and spent the day relaxing and wandering around, playing pool with Michael and the two Dutch girls, Maia and Karin. It is odd to see a Santa on the roof of one of the shops, but Christmas is only a week away. Some of the more adventurous went dune-boarding or quad-biking and naturally Baz injured his thumb. He and his new wife seem prone to accidents, illnesses and injuries. I was happy to play more pool, send emails, buy postcards, eat pizza and drink Windhoek lager. I liked the town; it is pretty, colourful and lively with lots of curio shops and cafés. Had an early night – to make the most of that bed!

Tuesday: had a walk on the beach before breakfast, last chance until I am back in Cape Town in a couple of weeks and then we drove to Cape Cross to visit the enormous Cape Fur Seal colony. It was noisy and malodorous and I struggled to keep my breakfast down. Leaving this chaos behind we headed inland to the silent desert once more to make camp at Spitzkoppe where the arid plains are pierced by bald volcanic mountain peaks. Strolling around one of the 700 million year old peaks before sunset I was struck by the beauty of the colours in these sparkling granite rocks. After dinner we all sat around the fire drinking wine whilst Michael, a sailor, pointed out the constellations.
So. Many. Stars.

Main: Spitskoppe Top: Social Weaver's Nest, Namib Desert, Oryx, Kokerboom Bottom: Springbok, Etosha Pool, Lion, Etosha Storm
Main: Spitzkoppe
Top: Social Weaver’s Nest, Namib Desert, Gemsbok, Kokerboom
Bottom: Springbok, Etosha Pool, Lion, Etosha Storm

Wednesday: left early but the truck got stuck in the sand which delayed us.  Digging a heavyweight truck out of soft sand is not easy. Destination Palmwag via Twyfelfontein with its ancient rock engravings, including many animal species. The engravings are thought to be the work of early Hottentots and the San tribe. At Palmwag the Captain and I pitched our tent away from the others, well mainly Randy, only to find that we may have put it in the path of the desert elephants that sometimes come through the camp! It has a lovely swimming pool where we had a great game of volley-ball. Unfortunately I struggled to keep afloat and hit the ball at the same time, so spent a lot of time choking.

Thursday: spotted Hartmann Zebra and Springbok and a Kori bustard on the way to Etosha, but no elephants. It turns out that Henri from Germany is an ace spotter. Eyes like an eagle so we were all getting excited at finding our first elephant. We saw elephant dung and elephant tracks, but no elephant. Stopped at Kamanjab to restock on beer, sweets and an ice cream for Michael – his mission is to find an ice-cream at every place we stop in, not as easy as you may think. We arrived at Okaukuejo camp in Etosha for our first night in this astonishing park. Etosha was once a vast inland sea, now a pan with year round water, a vastness of blinding white shimmering as far as the eye can see. The skies were an ominous black, but we pitched the tents and got back on board the truck for our first game drive. Everyone was tingling in anticipation as we headed to one of the water-holes. On the way Henri, who was allowed to sit on the roof, spotted two male Kalahari lions with their black manes and one female. We followed them to a water-hole where zebra and springbok were gathered. Some giraffe approached, but nervous of the lions, kept their distance. The sky grew darker. About to leave Attila the Hun suddenly switched off the engine and indicated behind us. A black rhino was heading to the water-hole. Suddenly he screeched to a halt, head up, sniffing the air. He backtracked, became confused and changed direction towards the truck. We were mesmerised, wondering if we were about to be charged. Then the wind got up, sending squalls of dust around his feet which confused him even more and he turned around and trotted away at a fair old gallop. Grinning with pleasure we returned to camp hitting heavy rain on the way and arrived to find the tents had blown all over the place. Discovered that Randy’s. Feet. Stink.

After dinner we lazily watched the flood-lit water-hole back in the camp, cans of Windhoek in hand, and spotted a tawny eagle owl, several ibis and a family of black rhino with a suckling calf socialising. Cute, but still no elephants. The tents were damp and musty; it is now hot and humid so I awoke several times in the night bathed in sweat. Toilets are filthy – why are some people such slobs?

(if you have enjoyed this you may also enjoy the rest of the trip:
Week 1:
Week 3:
Week 4: )

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I have lived in the UK for most of my life, but when young I definitely had wanderlust and even ended up living in South Africa for several years which was a wonderful experience. I now look forward to a long and leisurely retirement doing what I like most - gardening, photography, walking and travelling.

23 thoughts on “Aardwolves to Zebras: Snippets from an African Diary”

  1. Those Namibian sand dunes, so often photographed, and frequently described. It must be a great experience to actually see them Jude. Your tales of travel take me to those damp tents, and the marvellous starry sky. Shame about some of the others in the group though! I do like the sound of those sparkling granite rocks, but doubt I would endure the privations of the outdoor life as well as you did.
    Regards as always, Pete. X

    1. The whole trip is an experience I shall never forget Pete, and probably never repeat. One thing about travelling in a group where you know no-one is that you have to be tolerant, have a sense of humour and frequently bite your tongue 😉

  2. Thanks for the link to this post Jude. What a terrific experience. That scenery is stunning and seeing the animals in their own territory is very special.

  3. As Rudyard Kipling once said, “You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.” 😀 I enjoyed reading your vivid account, Jude, but there’s no way I could stay anywhere where my bathroom was near scorpion holes and huge sand spiders. You certainly had a most amazing adventure though, and saw so much really wild stuff, that I almost envy you. 😕

    1. I guess I was very naïve Sylvia. I just wanted to see more of the countries in Southern Africa and this trip was the cheapest I could find. I hadn’t even thought about what it would be like camping. I hadn’t camped since I was 19 yrs old!!

  4. Oh thank you Jude for taking me with you on this fabulous journey into the Namib Desert. I long to visit it oneday but meanwhile I have you as the perfect tour guide. Loved reading about your adventures under the African sun 🙂

  5. Oh, wow, what an adventure! Rather me than you with the smelly loos and scorpions, I’m too old for that now!!

    1. Well I was 13 years younger then – don’t think I’d cope as well now, and even then there were things I refused to do such as climbing mountains in the middle of the day in +40 degree heat! Can’t say I enjoyed those loos, but on the whole we stayed in private camp-sites where the loos were very basic, but always clean.

        1. Well, if you consider middle-aged to be youth. I was the 2nd oldest person on the trip and could have been the mother of most of the rest 😀

  6. LOL Jude, still waiting for the part where you love the trip 🙂 Shovel to the loo, now THERE’s a concept I could do without!!!! Good for you for following your sense of adventure.

    1. I must admit I didn’t cope well with the heat – sucked all the energy out of me, but the experience was wonderful so out of my comfort zone of working with computers all day long! Here I had no technology, not even a newspaper!

  7. Sounds like you appreciated the isolation of the desert, but could do without the heat! 🙂 Either way it must have been a fantastic adventure, even if in the end you know that don’t wish to return. Was there a specific reason you visited in December? I guess that’s pretty much the hottest time of year around there.

    1. I wanted to celebrate the Millennium (wasn’t able to get leave at the end of 1999 because of Y2K work) and get away from an English winter so this trip was spot on. I don’t think I even considered the temperature!

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