Africa, here we come!
I think that aside from a trip to Australia, we have seldom travelled as far as to South Africa. The day started with a 10 hour flight to Frankfurt, Germany. We had quite a long layover here. So we decided to book a day room at the Hilton Garden Inn at the airport. We had never done something like this before, but this was really a good idea. By the time we had arrived in Frankfurt sitting folded in narrow seats, it was a welcome pampering. We had the opportunity to sleep on a comfortable bed. After a nap we took a shower and freshened up in a very modern and comfortable setting. This way I don’t mind a long layover, and I may plan them deliberately in the future.
After a nice rest in our room we went to “Paulaner” for a bite to eat. For us it was a form of comfort food: Wienerschnitzel! After dinner (…uh, jet lag perhaps it was lunch, breakfast?) we went back to Terminal 1. It was fun trying out my best German again going through security; I think people understood me most of the time 😉
Being well rested sure helped for the next leg to Johannesburg in South Africa. Another 10 hours of which I maybe slept one hour. I did watch 4 episodes of Orphan Black and a movie. Disembarking in JoBurg went smoothly, we hardly spent any time at customs and immigration. I went to the ATM while Gepke called the Aero Lodge to come pick us up. We were picked up and drove a short distance to the hotel where we checked in. Today we just intend to relax and get our bearings. Tomorrow we’ll take a tour of JoBurg and Soweto and visit the Apartheids museum. We’ve been traveling since Monday, so I think we should take it easy for a few hours.
Johannesburg and Soweto
As planned the rest of our arrival day in Johannesburg, South Africa was relaxing. We caught a ride with a driver from the lodge to the Festival Mall. Here we want to get a bite to eat and shop for bottled water and other necessities. We ate at Panarotti’s where Gepke and I shared a pizza. The mall was very much like you would see in the US or Europe. There was not a lot to remind us of the fact that we are in Africa. Even some of the stores are the same we would expect to see at home.
At about 3 PM the driver was back to pick us up, and we returned to our room. We intended to just relax a little and read. However, the jet lag hit me like a ton of bricks. The minute I laid down on the bed I went out like a light. I woke up just in time to join other guests in the common room. We talked for a while with a South African family. It’s always interesting to hear about the country from a local’s perspective. They were visiting their son here in JoBurg. In the morning they would be leaving to see their other son in Dubai. They live on the west coast on a farm. We will likely be visiting this area too in the coming weeks.
We ate dinner at the lodge at a table next to a German couple. They had already spent more than a week here traveling to, amongst others, the Kruger Park. Their stories gave us an idea of what to expect to see as far as wild life is concerned.
We finished dinner just shortly before 9 PM. In our condition this was the perfect time to turn in for the night. For me the night was mostly a period of complete unconsciousness,. My slumber was briefly interrupted by my phone ringing. I managed to wake up enough to turn off my ringer. Not answering any sales calls from spammers on vacation…
Tour of JoBurg
In the morning we were both wide awake at 5:15 and got up a little after 6. The shower was wet and warm, we needed nothing more, and it refreshed us both. After a quick breakfast, we were ready to face the day. We met up with Brian and Julie from Florida who would be going with us on our tour of Johannesburg. A blue minivan pulled into the lodge and the driver introduced himself as Jozef. Jozef was going to take us for a ride through Johannesburg, to the Apartheids museum and Soweto. He was super friendly and knowledgeable as he drove us and explained everything we saw along the way.
First destination was downtown Johannesburg where everything was very quiet as today was a national holiday: Freedom Day. Jozef also warned us for the high crime rate in downtown JoBurg, so we needed to stay close to him. We got out of the car near what used to be the Carlton Hotel. In this building we took the elevator to the 50th floor. Here we had a great view over the city. Jozef explained that many businesses were moving away. This is due to the deteriorating conditions in downtown.
The newer business district Santen in the north of the city is much more attractive. We walked around on the 50th floor. We got an explanation of everything we saw in the north, east, south and west as we circled the building.
The tour continued through JoBurg, mostly just driving by car after which we then stopped at the Apartheids Museum. Jozef arranged entrance for us, after which we went through the museum on our own. It’s both impressive and depressing what South Africans went through during this period in their history. The stories of Nelson Mandela are familiar to us. But here they tell it in detail with artifacts and fotos. From the beginnings of South Africa, the time leading to Mandela’s struggle and his climax as President of South Africa. We left the museum quietly and mostly impressed at what we had seen.
From here we travelled on to Soweto. This township came into existence as the only place black africans were allowed to settle. The white minority government strictly controlled all other residential areas in JoBurg. Nowadays Soweto is not a bad place to live. We were actually surprised to see how beautiful some of the properties here are. But there is also poverty in Soweto in the form of shanty villages. Homes made of nothing more than reused wood and corrugated steel.
Locals guide us through one area with shanty homes and we were even invited inside one. There is a high percentage of unemployment here. The locals try to make some money showing tourists how they live and selling trinkets. It was a little embarrassing to us in a way. However the locals appreciate the opportunity to make some money in a for them dignified manner, as opposed to having to resort to hand-outs.
After this shanty village tour we went to see Mandela’s house which has been converted to a small museum. On the way there we also drove pass Winnie Mandela’s house. She still lives in Soweto, though in one of the largest homes there. We had a late lunch in a restaurant next to the former home of Desmond Tutu. The lunch was a more typical African buffet. We had the opportunity to try out some dishes we had not tasted so far.
All in all it was a full educational day. Our souls were touched emotionally in a positive sense. But also some sadness over the history that lead to this point. Soweto was so different than I had expected, but in a good way.
Leaving JoBurg, on to Zimbabwe
Our last breakfast in JoBurg was not as good as the first one. The quality varies a little, but it will keep us going today. We’re all packed and ready for the next destination. At 8 AM our driver Noel is ready for our ride to the airport. The flight to Zimbabwe should be a short one, At the airport a man with a cap that says “Porter” grabs us by the arms and drags us through checkin at record speed. Before we know it, we’re in line for the security. An announcement tells us we will leave from South Africa for Zimbabwe from gate A0. We make a long trek to the very end of the terminal to get there.
Then Gepke finds out there are no public restrooms here, so she has to make the whole trek back again. After she returns we settle in to wait for our flight. Someone comes and announces that we need to move to gate A4. Just like before, this is at the other end of the terminal. By the time we get there it’s almost boarding time. We can slip right to the end of the line to board. As we go through gate A4 we need to walk a distance again. When we finally see the door to our plane, it appears to be parked at gate A5. By now we’ll be happy if we actually end up where we need to go…
Flight to Victoria Falls
But the plane leaves and does land in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe about an hour and a half later. We disembark and are herded to the immigration desks. We are one of the first people off the plane, so there is not a long line in front of us. The man at the desks charges us each $50 for a 30 day KAZA visa for Zimbabwe and Zambia. Then it’s time to play the waiting game at the bagage carrousel. Will all our suitcases arrive? After seeing many pass by that we cannot claim, we finally see one that looks familiar. The second one takes almost as much time to appear later. But we have them all, and consider ourselves lucky. I’d hate to lose a suitcase in Africa.
The driver from the hotel, The Cresta Sprayview, is waiting in the arrival hall. He has a sign with our name on it. He leads us to a small van, that will take us the 20km to our hotel. The hotel looks new and fancy, with a lobby that is open to the outside. Staff receives us with drinks and we wait in comfortable chairs as they get our room ready. The rooms have the appearance of small attached bungalows and are very clean, modern and comfortable.
We unpack and decide to walk into town to get our bearings. Easier said than done. In an enthusiastic attempt to cross the street quickly I trip over an unevenness in the asphalt. What follows can best be described as a failed attempt at acrobatics on my end. I run to regain my balance and crash into the gravel on the other side of the road. We have to return to the room to have Gepke administer first aid. I have some serious scrapes on my hand and arms and bruises on my left leg and shoulders. The most damage though occurs to my ego.
Not to spoil too much of the afternoon, we walk into town anyway. Although tor me it was more like limping. We eat dinner at the hotel and turn in early so I can forget feeling sorry for myself.
Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe
After a restless night due to aches and pains, we rise early to visit the area of Victoria Falls. The breakfast at the hotel is perfect. They have a great variety bread, fruit, cereals, and warm food. Like eggs made to order, potatoes, sausage, tomato, bacon etc. We head out towards the town, where I use much more caution now when crossing the road. Along the way we are approached by peddlers trying to sell us all kinds of trinkets. When you show no interest the prices for these trinkets drop dramatically. One wooden bowl for 40 USD, drops to 4 bowls for 2 USD. The comment “no business” appears to work to quickly get rid of peddlers. Sometime it just means their pricing changes to Rands, as they think we are South Africans.
A short walk through the bush, across the train rails, right turn at the road leads us to the bridge across the Zambezi. Tis bridge leads into Zambia. We need to go through immigrations to enter Zambia for which we already have a visa. The bridge is a good vantage point to see another angle of Victoria Falls; the largest falls in Africa. It’s also a point from which some souls braver than me attempt to bungee jump. The proprietor of the bungee jump installation invites me to try it. One glance off the bridge makes my stomach turn and extinguishes any thoughts of bravery on my end.
Walk back to Zimbabwe
After admiring the view of the Falls from the bridge and taking pictures, we continue to the other side. There we ascend some steps to another view point, where we take more pictures. We continue along many parked trucks waiting to cross the border into Zimbabwe. Then we too turn around and head back. Livingstone is still several kms away, and we still need to walk a considerable distance to see Victoria Falls.
Back at the entrance to Mosi-Oa-Tunya we buy tickets to enter the National Park; at 30 USD per person not very cheap. Locals only pay 7 USD. As we start down the path to the Falls we soon notice it’s worth every penny. At the first turn towards the waterfall, we hear the thundering noise of the water and feel the spray on our skin. Along the trail there are different view points of the waterfall, each point even more impressive than the next. The light spray of water soon turns into a downright splashing. By the time we are at the end of the trail we are drenched down to our underwear. It’s comparable to wading through a river, even though you never enter the water. The dry air away from the waterfall dries our clothes quickly. By the time we leave the park, we’re dry again.
On the way back we plan to have lunch at the Victoria Falls Lodge. However it’s too busy at the lodge, so we just enjoy the view of the bridge from here. We stop for a bite to eat at Mama Africa’s Eating place. I have a burger and Gepke has a sandwich, neither was impressive culinarily speaking, but it hit the spot. We start the trek back to the hotel. Along the way nearly trip over a warthog and baboons menace us.
Back at the hotel we freshen up an get ready to meet our fellow travelers and guide for the trip. As usual on these tours, it’s an international group with people from Canada, Australia, Brazil, New Zealand, USA and UK. Our tour leader Jaco comes from South Africa, and our driver Dion is from Namibia. They speak Afrikaans with each other. I ask them to do that to me too, so I can pick up some more of this language. Jaco explains some of the rules during our trip, and lets us know what will be happening the coming days. We all have a meal together and get to know one and other.
It’s time to check out of the Cresta Sprayview and set off on the bus to Botswana. We have a large white bus big enough for 60 people. So there is plenty of room for the 16 of us. They store the baggage inside in the back, as the baggage compartments under the bus are a target for thieves. It’s a short distance to the Zimbabwe / Botswana border. Here procedures are pretty much as we have become accustomed to. Disinterested officials behind a teller windows stamp our passports and put more stamps on other pieces of paper. I wonder if anyone really cares, and what happens to the notes, papers and scans. Where will they be a year from now? 5 years? 10 years? Still collecting dust on some shelve in a government warehouse?
Outside the office we need to step into a shallow tray with a dirty liquid in it. Apparently this is to disinfect our shoes and prevent the spread of cattle diseases. If we are carrying any other shoes in our baggage, we need to “clean” these as well. After the procedure we’re allowed to board the bus again and continue on our way. After a while we arrive at our overnight hotel for today: the Thebe River Safari in Kasane. The room looks cozy and there appears to be free Wifi. Well the Wifi connects but the internet is spotty at best and very slow. It looks like I will not be uploading my blog tonight. In the afternoon we go on a boat trip on the Chobe river to spot some wildlife.
The boat takes us along the banks of the river where al kinds of animals come to drink. We see a lot of Elephant, Hippo, Impala, Baboon, Warthog, Kudu, Crocodile and many, many varieties of birds.
By the end of the boat trip we’re all scanning the banks for animals we have not yet seen. Tomorrow we will do a land based wildlife trip, and see more. For tonight we have dinner in the form of a buffet after which we turn in for the night. We sleep like babies under the mosquito netting that keeps the bugs away.
Safari through Chobe National Park
An early rise the following so we can catch the wildlife, and especially predators, when they are most active. In the dark we climb into the high open vehicles and set out to the Chobe National Park. At the entrance it’s a bustle of vehicles that need to submit paperwork to get in. Even though we are one of the first to arrive, other vehicles pass us that arrived later. It’s the same everywhere in the world; all people are equal but some people are more equal than others.
After a while we can continue on the narrow trail through the park. We soon have our first close encounter with elephants. They look eerie in the twilight of the rising sun; I have not been this close to an African elephant since I was in Tanzania. Not without some barrier between them and me . As the sun rises we see more of the animals we saw yesterday, and also a giraffe or two, but none of the predators we were hoping for.
But then suddenly a gathering of vehicles. At the side of the road lies a lion motionless on it’s side. She almost looks dead if not for an occasional twitch of her paw. Obviously, she had an extremely large breakfast and is now taking a nap to recover. Not at all bothered by all the attention of the tourists, so we can all take plenty of pictures. Further down the road we see another lion; this one is lying in the tall grass and we can only see her protruding head.
All in all a good day of wildlife viewing. We return to our hotel to pack and drive on to Nata. Here we will be staying at the Elephants Sands, a kind of tent lodge. This time there is no Wifi at all, so again no opportunity to update the blog. Perhaps back home they are beginning to think we’ve been eaten by lions. In the old days, if you went on a trip like this, people back home would not hear from you for months. Nowadays it’s expected that you check in regularly. The world is not that well connected everywhere yet, but we’re getting there.
Facilities here are very basic. Electricity is dependent on a generator, so no charging of phones and cameras in the room. There is one central charging point at the bar and it’s a struggle to find room for our equipment. I take a shower after we arrive and have the choice between scalding hot or cold water. Mixing hot and cold proves fruitless, so I have a cold shower before we go on a wildlife drive here. The drive is a little disappointing compared to yesterday. Both watering holes they take us to are dried up. So aside from some impala and warthog we don’t see much.
Back at the hotel there is more bad news. The road to our next destination has been wiped out by a flood and is impassible. So we need to make a detour which will take us an extra 8 hours. That means a very early morning departure..
Okavango Delta, canoes and bush walk
We get up extremely early at 3:30 AM to make the long detour due to a washed out road. This early departure is necessary because some people have a 3 PM flight over the Okavango Delta. All in all, we need to drive 750 km today as a result of this detour. We hang out in our seats, sleep and read as the bus goes towards Maun. We arrive just in time to set our fellow travelers off on their flight and empty our near bursting bladders. The remaining people head to the Sedia Hotel, where we spend the night. Tomorrow we visit the Okavango Delta. We cannot carry too much with us because we’ll be traveling by Mokuro, a small African canoe.
In the morning we check out of the hotel, and in open jeeps head to the Delta. Most of our baggage remains behind in the bus, including most of the electronics as they’ll be useless there anyway. We arrive at the water where our canoes are waiting.
We board two people to a canoe, and head out into a narrow canal surrounded by high reed. The boat feels wobbly underneath me, and I’m already tense about being in a small boat. It takes me nearly an hour to relax enough to video some of the surroundings. Along the way we stop at a small clearing. A pair of Hippos hang out in a pool and pose as we photograph them.
Setting up camp
After about an hour and a half we arrive at our island for the night; I can relax my butt muscles that are as hard as ebony wood from the tension. We setup camp and then need to wait until 4:30 PM. One of the guides will take us for a bush walk. Most people pass the time swimming or trying to pole a canoe (incl. Gepke who did not fall in the water). Others play a game called “Pass the Pig”, played with a pair of pig shaped dice. The pyromaniac in me is fascinated with the fire in the middle of the camp. I enjoy passing time throwing small twigs in it and watching them burn.
Then we are called back to the canoes to sail to another island for our bush walk. The walk is beautiful in the late afternoon sun. We’d enjoy it even if we did not encounter any animals. However, our guide spots a herd of zebra and we walk towards them. Although they are aware of us and are looking straight at us, they don’t make any attempt to move away. We can approach to a distance of less than 100 meters. All of us take some good photos and video of these beautiful creatures. I’ve never been out in the open like this. This close to a herd of zebras without a fence between them and me.
The sun is starting to set so we need to head back to camp, where Jaco has prepared dinner. We sit in a circle around the campfire to eat and drink, while the guides perform some local songs and dance. When I go to bed, I hardly get a wink of sleep due to all the noises in our camp. Mostly crickets, grunting Hippos and snoring group members.
The following morning we tear down camp and the trip in the canoes is reversed. Through the canal we go back to the point where the trucks will pick us up. Overnight our bus battery has run dead as Dion has left the ignition on. Dion and Jaco try to find jumper cables to jump start the bus. They cannot find cables of sufficient length, so a battery from another truck is temporarily removed. Jaco and Dion connect it to start the bus. We drive into town to do some snack shopping and then return to the hotel again, as many members forgot to use the bathroom. Then we are on our way again. The bus drives to the San Bushman region, where the Bushmen will show us how they live.
Since no one really slept well in camp, it’s mostly quiet in the bus. Many people catch up with a few winks. Around noon we arrive at our lodging for tonight: Ghanzi Trailblazers Camp. A number of bushmen huts await us for the night. The huts are small, with two beds in them and nothing else. It’s quaint and original, but I start to long for a real room. A comfortable bed, electricity and Wifi; I know, I’m spoiled…
In the afternoon very authentic looking Bushmen and women take us for a walk. They explain about the different roots and plants they use as their medicine, and where to find them. There is a variety of wonder roots. Some are use for ailments such as headaches and diarrhea. But also arthritis, birth control and anti-malaria medication can be found. Afterwards the tribe sings and dances for us around the campfire.
They look very authentic with the men in nothing more than a loin cloth and the women with bare breasts and small babies on their back. It reminds me much of the movie “The gods must be crazy”. I remind myself to watch this movie again when I get home. I now have a very different perspective.
After the dance there is not much left to do other than turn into the uncomfortable beds. The staff turns off the generator at 10 PM. We don’t need to worry about the odd bush sounds during the night. Our travel companion Rollie’s snoring drowns out all other sounds. The bush hut walls do not dampen that sound. Again, I do not sleep much during the night…
An early start today, followed by a very long drive to Windhoek where we arrive later in the afternoon. A comfortable hotel room in the Auas Hotel this time. A real bed, wifi and all the electricity you need: sheer luxury! The rest of the day is used to relax and recharge. In the evening we get together to say goodbye to a few group members who are leaving, and welcome a few new ones.
Sean and Graham( the second) replace Sam, Graham( the first), Rollie, Julia, Cherry, Elizabeth and Luke, whom are leaving. The rest of the group remains as it is: John, Liz, Allen, Shirley, Lauren, Nathalia, Nick, Johno, Alex, Kim and of course Jaco, Dion and ourselves. We have a nice dinner in The Peppercorn, a restaurant located in the Mall next to our hotel. The younger ones in the group go bar hopping till 2:30 AM. The remaining group returns to the hotel for the night.
Etosha National Park
We board the bus this time to head to Etosha National Park. It’s a relatively short ride compared to yesterday. The animal viewing starts the minute we pass through the main gate.
Along the way to our campsite for the next two nights, we see Impala, Springbok, Jackal and Giraffes. Tomorrow we’ll be going on a game drive and will be seeing many more, but this is already a good start. After arrival we setup camp and pitch our tents; while Jaco prepares dinner. We also take a look at the watering hole which is just visible from behind the fence surrounding our camp area. When we arrive there is a small herd of Zebra drinking the water and splashing around. After dinner we return to the watering hole again which is bathed in light from a pair of floodlights, but there are no animals to be seen.
The next day we get an early start for a game drive in two open trucks. Pretty much immediately out of the gate we strike it rich and find 3 lions hanging out. They are resting with full bellies after the morning hunt. After we leave this scene it’s pretty much a constant schedule of driving a bit and stopping after someone spots an animal and shouts “Stop!”. Of course there are false alarms, as many branches and bushes look remarkably like animals.
But in the course of the day, we see many: Lion, Impala, Springbok, Kudu, Oryx, Rhino, Jackal, Zebra, Wildebeest and a few I don’t recall the name of. Our game drive takes all day and we take hundreds of photos and video. Especially the Rhino crossing the road in front of our vehicles gets a lot of attention. And of course the male lion drinking at a watering hole.
Around noon, we stop at another camp to eat some lunch, swim in the pool and relax. Since I have not slept much last night, I stretch out in the grass underneath a shady tree and catch a few winks. After my nap Gepke comes to get me. I have to check out the watering hole at this camp. It becomes a short visit, as we need to board our vehicles again for the rest of the game drive. On the way back, we see the vast expanse of the “Pan”: a large silted dry lakebed that is currently yellow with short grass. During the rain season, runoff water from the north collects here, along with all the minerals collected along the way.
When we return we help Jaco prepare dinner for tonight: spaghetti bolognese. The food is appreciated by all, but unfortunately the beer is warm, and there is no way to cool it. It tastes very English. After dinner Gepke and I go to the watering hole. We sit there for a while staring into the dark. Then two Rhinos show up to get a drink. Gepke takes photos but it’s too dark for video. We just enjoy watching the Rhinos at the watering hole a bit longer. Then we return to our tents. I am not as cold this time, and finally get some sleep. Perhaps tomorrow I can stay awake in the bus long enough to write the blog.
I’ve been through the desert…
…on a horse with no name… This song by the group America kept going through my head as we trek deeper into the Namibian Desert.
At 4:30 AM we get up and start taking down the tents and packing our things. Breakfast is a quick ritual and then into the bus for the long ride to Swakopmund. The surroundings become ever more dryer. After a while we’re pretty much driving a straight black road surrounded by sand as far as you can see.
Around 1 PM we arrive in Swakopmund, a relatively large African city. It’s surrounded by sand in three wind directions and the Atlantic Ocean in the West. Our hotel, “Europahof”, is built in a Bavarian style, with white wall crisscrossed with dark wooden beams. If it wasn’t for the palm trees in the inner court yard, this could have been anywhere in Germany. Swakopmund has a long German history. This can be seem from the building style of many of the older buildings. Of course here too, there is a large shanty village housing many less financially fortunate locals.
Shortly after arrival and checkin, we visit the Activity Info Center. Here we can choose from numerous activities ranging from dessert tours and quad biking to sky diving. We choose for a tame tour of the Skeleton Coast that same afternoon. Neither of us has interest in jumping from a perfectly good working airplane. Jay performs the drive along the Skeleton Coast of Africa. Jay is a Californian who has been living here in Swakopmund for the last 15 years. He proves to be quite knowledgeable about the city, it’s surroundings and it’s climate.
We stop at one of the stranded ships that litter the coast here. Using the beach as a giant school board, he explains how the climate in this area has resulted in the dessert here. Along the way he points out the different sites of interest. Jay shows us that when he says a rock has a high iron content, he really means it. He demonstrates this by hitting a large boulder with a rock. Instead of the dull sound of rock hitting rock, we hear the load clang as if hitting a metal pan.
The absolute highlight of the trip is a visit to a seal colony, near Cape Cross. The area is littered with thousands of Cape Seals, basking in the sun with many baby seals dispersed among them. Jay chases away a few of them. This clears a path for us to a gate that leads to an enclosed boardwalk. On this path we continue into the dense colony of seals as far as the eye can see. We get right up close to individual seals, where we can watch the mothers weening their pups. Seals fight amongst themselves for the scarce room around them. It’s a cacophony of noise and an attack on other senses. Especially the nose, for the seals smell enormously due to their diet of fish. They also leave around a lot of excrement.
At this time we need to return, for we have now travelled 120 km along the coast from Swakopmund. It’s starting to get dark. The return drive in the dark night is eery. The only light is coming from the headlights of the van and the nearly full moon. We arrive back in town just in time to join the others for dinner at Napolitana, a restaurant not far from the hotel. That night we sleep in luxury on a real mattress with clean sheets. No air-conditioning needed. The cold dessert night air breezes in through our open windows and gives us a comfortable rest.
For the first time in a while we have the opportunity to sleep in. However, we are wide awake at 6:30 and get up for breakfast in the hotel dining room. We have a day to ourselves which we plan to use to discover the town and generally just roam around. One of our destinations is the tower of the Woerkom House, which gives us a view of the city. Along the way I stop to get a haircut.
During our walk we also visit the beach, the Pier, lighthouse and old prison which is still in use today. The prison is beautiful enough on the outside to be mistaken for a fancy hotel. But it’s not the kind of hotel you’ll want to stay at voluntarily. We return to the hotel late in the afternoon and pick a place to eat for that evening.
The choice falls upon Kuchi’s, a very german restaurant with ditto menu. I am tempted by dishes like Eisbein, Wiener Schnitzel and Jaeger Schnitzel. I settle on a Pepper Steak with fried potatoes and Gepke has Cod, most likely caught locally. After dinner we return to the hotel and both crash early and sleep more than 10 hours. We should be able to stay awake in the bus tomorrow when we drive to Sossusvlei.
Camping in the desert
Another travel day today as we head to Sossusvlei. The African landscape along the way changes from something similar to the photos I’ve seen taken by the Mars rovers. Later it changes to a scenery more reminiscent of the Utah near Green River. The long trip was only interrupted for a stop at Solitaire. An odd way station in the middle of the desert. Here you can get fuel, admire the old vehicles rusting away at the side if the road, or buy cakes and bread at a German bakery.
We end up at our camp site called Sossusvlei Oasis. It’s located near the entrance to Namib Naukluft NP,. The gateway to the Sossusvlei Dunes. We pitch our tents that we will use for the next two nights. Some of us use the rest of the afternoon to relax and swim. In the early evening Jaco has dinner ready and afterwards we can roast marshmallows in the campfire.
The following morning we all pour into the bus to get in line to enter the park. A long line of cars is already waiting but for reasons beyond my comprehension we were allowed to enter immediately. We then travel about 45 km to our first destination: Dune 45. Our group exits the bus and heads up the ridge of the dune to ascend to the top. My bum knee prevents me from going too far up. I am also experiencing some rumbling inside, so I return to the bus. I’ll withhold the gory details that occur later. Gepke will need to write the experiences of the remainder of the day. I remain behind to hitch a ride back to the camp site.
As she tells me, after leaving me behind, they drive on through the Sossusvlei. They arrive at an area where they board smaller trucks that take them to the Dead Vlei. This is a salt pan famous for the many photographs taken here of the eery surroundings. Their last stop is at the Sesriem Canyon, a small canyon where a river runs thru every five to ten years.
In the meantime I am camping out near the smelly toilets for two reasons. Reason one is pretty obvious; my rumbling insides don’t allow me to venture too far from the toilet. It’s also the only spot with some shade. The sun is beginning to shine down hard on me. There are very few vehicles heading back in the direction of the camp. Walking back the 45 km would not be an option even if I felt better than I did at that time. The few vehicles that do pass by are either packed to the roof with people and gear or ignore my waving.
One even tries to run me over. Finally a car stops with two South African couples in it. I find a spot in the back on top of their camping gear. They are also camping at the same site as us, so they give me a lift all the way to the campsite.
Less than an hour later the rest of the group also returns. We spend the rest of the afternoon relaxing again at the small pool. In the evening Jaco prepares a braai of beef on the barbecue. All of us speak of how happy we are this being the last night of camping on this trip. Only lodges and hotels from this point forward, no more freezing nights in the Namiba Desert.
Onwards to the South
For the last time we tear down the tents, and after a quick breakfast we all board the bus to head to the Seeheim Hotel. Seeheim will be our overnight stop on our long trip to Fish River Canyon. The will be our last stop in Namibia before entering South Africa again. The landscape remains desolate along the way. Most toilet breaks along the way are either at gas stations or in the bushes at the side of the road. Around lunch time we stop in a larger settlement. Here we can buy snacks and other necessities in a relatively large shopping mall. Some people have lunch at a fast food restaurant here. Gepke and I limit ourselves to some fruit and water purchased at the supermarket before continuing again.
Later in the afternoon we arrive at Seeheim Hotel. It’s quaint place that is a hybrid between a German castle and a bushman’s hut. The place was built in the early 1900’s, and it shows it’s age. There is hardly any water pressure, the shower sprays in all directions and the toilet doesn’t flush. But after the tent camp of the last two days, it feels like sheer luxury to us. We walk around in the immediate vicinity of the hotel.
A path along the railroad tracks leads to an old bridge that crosses the river. The bridge feels wobbly and it cracks and groans, as the metal it’s made of contracts in the cooling afternoon breeze. The view from the bridge is worth the walk and the imagined danger of collapse. We take pictures and balance on the narrow pathway along side the rails.
Back at the hotel we try using the WiFi, but the bandwidth is too little to be useful; a returning story these last few days, and I assume people back home have given up on us… Dinner however later in the evening is surprisingly good, with a buffet that offers fish and Oryx meat. The meat is very tender, lean and tastes really good. After dinner and conversations we retire to our rooms and smoothly slide between real sheets and a comfortable mattress. It feels good to leave tents and sleeping bags behind. The mosquito net above us protects us as we float off to dreamland.
I refresh myself by dancing around in the shower. I am trying to catch the water sprays that fly randomly in all directions from the clogged shower head. But it’s a private shower, and I don’t need to share it with 16 other people. So I enjoy it much. We pack our stuff and head out to the common area for breakfast. Afterwards we play with the dogs and the parrot that also live here. There are many animals near the hotel; an Oryx shares a pen with chickens and turkeys. Two young calfs roam the front yard and can be petted by the guests. Down the road baby pigs run around.
We board our bus again for the second phase of our long trip. We drive along Fish River Canyon to the Namibia / South African border near the Orange River. The bus drops us off at a point overlooking the Fish River Canyon. Just like the Grand Canyon back home, photos and description cannot do it justice. It’s a view you have to see for yourself to appreciate it.
We walk a distance along the canyon rim to admire the different views. At some angles it reminds me a lot of the view of the Green River in Utah. Looking at it from Dead Horse Point. But it has a character all of it’s own due to the total lack of vegetation. Only a poisonous succulent plant grows here. It occasionally takes the life of an ignorant hiker that uses it to build the fire to cook his meal. The smoke penetrates the food and is also deadly poisonous.
After our short hike we continue to our hotel for the day, the Norotshama near the South African border. We arrive about 2 hours later. We are welcomed with Orange Juice and Sherry, to me an odd combination. I stick to just Orange Juice. The rooms are a step up from the Seeheim Hotel, and there is air conditioning! We are slowly being weened off our camping life.
Back to South Africa
Another very early departure at 5:30 AM. We have a long trip ahead to Cape Town, South Africa with only one stopover in Lambert’s Bay. The scenery slowly changes from dry rocky dessert to more rock outcroppings. The road is lined with grass and here and there a lost small tree. It’s still very dry here in the Northern Cape, which is really the most southern part of the Namibian Dessert. Just before we go to our overnight stop, we stop at Bird Island. A short pier that ends in a bird sanctuary. We can watch Gannets here, a type of seagull. It’s the end of the breeding season and they are getting their young ready to leave the nest.
In the early afternoon we arrive in Lambert’s Bay. We are staying the night in a guesthouse: Sir Lambert’s. It’s a cozy place that looks more like a large living room. The occasional side door leads to the individual guest bedrooms. The bedrooms are very roomy with individual bathrooms and air conditioning. But after such a long period of isolation, the most important feature here is a well working WiFi connection with internet. It allows me to upload the blogs from the past week and some photos. I can inform people back home of our progress. A small dog runs around in the place and plays with the guests. But he plays mostly with Jaco whom he appears to remember from previous visits.
In the evening we all file into the bus again and head out for dinner at the Muisbosskerm. This is a small eatery, built out of Fynbos bushes found in the surroundings. It’s mostly out in the open right next to the beach and the Atlantic Ocean. From here we watch the sun set in the ocean as the staff prepares dinner. There is no menu, staff brings out food in small portions and you just eat what you like. I fill up on corn on the cob, potato yeast bread, sweet potatoes, angle fish, hake and snoeck; there is however much more to choose from and we all end up eating way too much. It was all very good though, and we stretched our tummies to capacity before we returned to the guesthouse.
Cape Town, Table Mountain and Robben Island
Lambert’s Bay is only a short stay as we are off again to Cape Town. A few of the group have stayed in a different guest house, due to the few rooms available at this one. They join us again for breakfast as we compare notes. We are on the last stretch now to Cape Town. Before we get there we stop at the Swartland winery where the group has the opportunity to do some wine tasting. Unfortunately wine does not agree with me. Not even the smell so I need to sit downwind a ways and watch from a distance.
After the wine tasting we file into the bus again. We travel the last few miles to Cape Town, where we’ll be staying at the Lady Hamilton Hotel. As we enter Cape Town, Jaco points out the sites of this city for us. Cape Town is really one of the most beautiful cites in South Africa that we have seen so far. We arrive relatively early and as far as G-Adventures is concerned, this is the end of the tour. Gepke and I will still have some discovering of our own to do in this city.
We start in the afternoon with a visit to Tafelberg/Table Mountain. Gepke has some issues with the Uber app. Eventually we manage to summon a ride to Table Mountain, a ride we share with John and Liz. The four of us have a good time as we take the cable car up the mountain. We walk, take pictures and just admire the view from up there. We see many birds, but also a few Dassies, a type of small badger that lives up here. It’s hard to believe that this small mammal’s closest relative is the mighty Elephant.
Later that afternoon we return to the Lady Hamilton to have dinner for the last time with our group. We say goodbye to everyone. Dinner is at Arnold’s with the whole group. We also catch up with some people that had already left us earlier in Windhoek: Sam and Graham and Julia. Nick gives a speech and hands Jaco an envelope filled with the gratitude of all group members. We made a similar gesture for our dedicated driver Deon when he left us after Lambert’s Bay to return to his family in Windhoek.
We get up at 7:30 as we have a reservation for the Robben Island later that morning. We share an Uber with Luke who has a reservation at the same time as us. The ferry leaves from the cozy waterfront area of Cape Town, an area bustling with tourists. We get in line for the boat, where once aboard Gepke and Luke immediately head towards the upper deck. I look for a window seat in the relative safety of the lower deck, near the center of the boat: I hate boats. Luckily the trip is not to long, nor is the ride too rough. I arrive relatively unscathed at Robben Island.
The Island is pretty barren and we are immediately scuttled into busses that start a large tour of the Island. A young man, apparently unhappy with how things went in the past, attempts to indoctrinate us. Along the tour he tries make us feel guilty for all the regime in South Africa had done wrong to their political prisoners. When I let my attention slack, he immediately tries to discipline me. An act that just gets him a very angry glance from me and the promise that he has forfeited any tip. I am happy to leave the bus at the end and have the ability to tour the remainder of Robben Island on my own.
The tour at the actual prison where Nelson Mandela and his fellow political prisoners were held, has a much more lasting impression on me. This may be due to the tour being done by one of the former prisoners: Dumisani Mwandla. I visit almost every cell to read the stories posted there of each prisoner that was a “guest” there. He spent 5 years here, working in the kitchen. In 1991 he was released along with many others when the unfair South African Apartheids regime came to an end.
I also talk to our guide and ask him how he can do these tours and be remembered of how he was treated in those days. He tells me he was unsure if he could do it at first. But after a while it helped him deal with the memories and make his peace with it. After having seen the Apartheids Museum in Johannesburg and Robben Island, I take one thing with me: when one group attempts to suppress another, both groups loose. Only through collaboration and compromise can a community of any size work.
The trip back from Robben Island is a lot rougher on me. Mostly because the waters are choppy and the spray from the ocean makes it hard for me to see the horizon. The point I concentrate on to survive any water born trip. But this too passes. Soon we sit down at a terrace on a waterfront restaurant to enjoy a late lunch. A few seagulls try to help us empty our plates. So we need to defend our food vigorously. By the time the evening rolls around back at our hotel we are still full from lunch. We just get some dessert at the local supermarket before turning in early.
Cape of Good Hope, City Tour and return home
Gepke had also managed to book a tour to Cape of Good Hope. We wait outside our hotel until the driver for this tour will arrive. A van pulls up with in it our driver for the day called James. After we are seated James tells us we are his only guests for the day. Consider it a private tour and set the pace as you please. That sounds like a plan! The Cape of Good hope is quite a drive from Cape Town. Along the way there will be frequent photo stops and opportunities to admire the surroundings and views. James starts out pretty talkative which worries us. But pretty soon he limits himself to describing what we see along the way and it seems he is very knowledgeable about the area.
After driving through the suburb cites like Bantry Bay, Clifton, Camps Bay, we get to the towns further away. Cities like Hout bay, Fish Hoek and Simon’s town, where we stop at Boulder Beach to see the penguins. You can pay a fee to get on to the beach. But the penguins are just as visible if not even better from the free walk along the boardwalk. Some places along the boardwalk are close enough to pet the penguins, though I would not try it. Those beaks look sharp…
From Boulder Beach we continue and enter the Cape of Good Hope national park area. At the side of the road further into the park we can get really close and personal with an ostrich couple. They even pose for us so we can get some good close ups.
Finally we actually make it to the Cape of Good Hope. Here we take the obligatory picture standing behind the sign. Afterwards we climb the hill up to the light house, take in the view and take a lot of photos.
On the way back we stop at the Botanical Gardens to admire all that grows here in the Cape area. The walk through the botanical gardens goes along a very steep trail. Gepke wishes to photograph Proteas, the national flower of South Africa, at the highest point in the Gardens. We had agreed on an hour at the gardens with James, but we get lost and arrive 20 minutes late. He does not appear to be upset, after all this is a private tour!
We arrive back at the Lady Hamilton in time to have dinner at Miller’s Thumb, a good choice for the food turns out to be pretty special. No real menu other than: choose your meat or fish and how you want it prepared. The staff is very friendly and seems to know many of the locals that come to eat at the restaurant. This is usually a good indicator of a fine restaurant.
Today is our flight back home, but not until later in the afternoon. We book a day pass on the Hop-On-Hop-Off bus of Cape Town. Our intention is just to sit on it the whole ride and take in the sites. But when the bus returns after only 20 minutes, it becomes clear to us we’re on the wrong bus. So we switch from the yellow “Downtown Tour”, to the red “City Tour”.
This time we get what we expected. It’s mostly an opportunity to take pictures we may have missed yesterday, on our tour to Cape of Good Hope with James.
Flying back home
After the bus tour we gather our things at the hotel and order an Uber to the airport. The trip back to Denver turns out to be a challenge. First 11 hours to Frankfurt, followed by a 6 hour layover and then another 10 hours to Denver. Coming over we had a day hotel, but this time we just hang in the airport terminal. We try to find a comfortable position in the chairs at the gate.
Lufthansa’s service to Africa was nothing special, but I have learned not to expect much from airlines anymore. However, the last leg going to Denver was really not very good. We had a hard time getting the attention from the flight attendants. They seemed to keep missing us when it came to serving drinks and food. When we finally did get their attention, there would be no choice in food. It would take long before any food showed up. As far as I’m concerned Lufthansa is on my list of airlines to avoid in the future.
South Africa however was definitely worth it, and although Johannesburg was not my favorite city; Cape Town I could envision as a future home. South Africa is well developed, as is true for all the other countries in this area we visited: Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia. They all appeared way more developed than I expected. Should I ever return here I intend to do so on my own, not using a group tour. I’d like to take my time, stay in some places a little longer and have the flexibility of a rental car so I can decide my own pace.
The G-Adventures tour was a good way to become acquainted with this part of Africa. However, I think there should be some adjustments to the current itinerary. No need to spend two nights in a tent in Sossusvlei. After the day trip, we might as wel had broken up camp and moved on. It would have been nice to have been able to upgrade in advance in some areas. However, that was not initially offered as an option. But everything else was well taken care of and the tour guide Jaco was knowledgeable and always willing to help. I really enjoyed the trip and our stay there.
Travel period from April 26th through May 17th, 2017. Countries visited: South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana and Namibia. Weather: warm days, cool nights. Accommodations: Hotels and Tents. Tour executed by G-Adventures.