Banked by barren hills on either side the Kunene River widens to accommodate as few small lush islands before plunging down over twenty odd falls all combing into a gaping geological fault which creates the Epupa Falls. Compared to Victoria Falls it is small but its location is breathtaking. This is a hand on waterfall with Jacuzzi baths pools on it’s every edge deep enough not to be swept over the side. What more could one want after a long day in the blistering sun than to sit in a natural bathtub? Let the heat flush from our pores to the sound of cascading water, birdsong, all kissed by the setting sun. We can’t wait for the morning.
Back under the trees while darkness mutters too itself without pause our fire glows. The fall’s noise is designated into second place long before the sun peaks over the trees by insect song.
Morning comes with a din of feathered excitement amplified by the valleys vaulted walls. The bird population is having their morning bath> A twitches paradise. The Kunene River at this spot is characterized by dense reed banks and tall trees its life-giving perennially waters attract feathered friends of mind-boggling verity.
Our bird book receives many ticks. Blue-cheeked bee-eaters, Yellow-bellied bulbuls, Spectacled and Golden weavers, Giant and Grey-hooded kingfishers, Goliath heron, Martial and African fish eagles, White and red-billed hemetshrikes, not to mention the Rufous-tailed palm thrush and the Cinderella waxbill two of the rarest birds in the whole of South Africa. This is one of Namibia’s prime beautiful destinations.
As the sun cast its intense gaze from corner to corner the night’s air loiter on our nude bodies, fresh sparkling water pours over our heads into our private bathtubs pools. We are reborn in an aura of adventure and discovery. Long live the needs for a four-wheeled vehicle to reach Epupa.
Up the bank from the falls, we find a swimming spot with no need to watch out for crocks. They have a dislike for fast-moving water. We swim surrounded by plants that suck the colour from the rocks. Waving Makalani palms, Baobabs, and wild fig trees soak up the colour mist that wafts up from the gorge that is displaying three to four small rainbows.
Up from out campsite we find the first signs of the desecration to come. A small luxury under canvas establishment offers visitors who fly in all the comfort of home from home. Over a very expensive lunchtime beer, we learn that there are plans to dam the river below the falls. The death knell for the Himba and the falls are already in the balance. Epupa isolation sadly is under attack. Like many an Amazon tribe, the need for protection has been sacrificed for short gains. The Himba need isolation to maintain their cultural vibrancy. Regrettable all the sign of another way of living and dying with or without ancestors is in the process of being consumed by world materialism.
It is a known fact that most visitors to Africa, never see further than the tarmac roads. Millions live in villages to which no roads lead but the current thinking about values: the way we view the world around us and how we behave how we measure costs are influenced regrettably by short-sighted roads without much symbiosis.
For us, the way north is blocked
The prospect of crossing over into Angola and making up to Cameroon crossing the Democratic Republic of the Congo, never mind the Republic of Congo and then Gabon not to mention the last stumbling block getting through Nigeria, is far from reality in the bounds of arriving home safely. We will turn us east and run the Caprivi Strip.
With breathtaking views, the rest of our day is spent climbing over rock washed to a silky and shiny texture exploring the Gorge. We return to our swimming spot for a late evening soak before dinner. A few elderly Himba women wander into camp to sell the family jewels and some home-made Himba dolls.
The power of trade is greater than the iron fist. Beads for gold, oil for dollars, land for peace, grace for heaven, sin for hell. I wonder will the world end up trading drinking water and air for life or are we already doing it under the camouflage of the World Bank and its like.
The depth of darkness beyond one’s campsite is always a test in Africa. You never know what watching, waiting, is it > a sting, a bit, a blow, a fright. Here in Kaokoland apart from the man-eating Kunene crocks sadly there is little hope of any animal disturbed your day or night. Our bible say’s there is a chance of seeing black rhino, giraffe, and ostrich, lion. During our three weeks, we had only one magic moment when we came across in one of Colin Britz isolated spots five or six Hartman’s. As for the rest, we fear that they are long in the cooking pot or god forbid hanging on some wall. We remember seeing a TV program on the Desert Elephant and can only hope like the Himba that they will both survive.
Morning brings a surprise. We wake to find two groups of South Africans camp on our doorstep. We are baffled as to why they have chosen to pitch camp on top of us when there are lashings of beautiful spots available. Maybe they are afraid of the dark, not the night dark, but the skin colour dark. An after breakfast polite request that they might consider giving us some breathing space is met with boar fuck you from a Burt Reynolds type. We have long learned to step over dog turds, so rather than argue the toss we decide to pack up and leave the next morning. That night’s rowdiness confirms our wisdom.
Our Colin map shows a track that follows the Cunene up to Ruacana Falls the direction from which our new South African friends came from. We decided to enquire at the encampment as to the conditions of the track. “It could take anything up to three days to make it as far as Ruacana and then there is no certainty of you getting any fuel”.
As if we needed any further confirmation the banging and cursing of tire and wheel changes that last all morning with the look of the South African hired Toyota confirms that it is a long way around by way of Opowo.
Arriving midday the girls visit the only shop to replenish our dwindled stocks as best they can. I in the meantime struggle with a welding torch. Eventually finding the proper mix to get the torch alight I use one rod after another till the exhaust is sealed with a weld that looks like a loaf of bread. (Top TIP: If you don’t have a clue re-welding a few hours learning might come in handy.)
We camp some twenty kilometres outside Opowo Pitch No 80.
We break camp early. Colin had advised us before leaving Walvis Bay that he would contact his old friend Steven Briane who runs a private small game park on the western side of Etosha called Hobatere Lodge. He would ask him to open the western gate to Etosha, which would save us some considerable dust time.
Heading south we climb over the Joubert Mountains. Covering 144 kilometres we swelter by Otuzemba, Otjondeka, Okatijura, Okonjota till we eventually at Otikowarbe and are driving down the western boundary of one of Africa’s most famous Game Parks
A hundred and forty clicks off pisé in one day in soaring temperatures takes its toll. We are grateful to arrive and open the gates to Hobatere Lodge. Steven turns out to be less than welcoming. He is in bad need of some PR training. He has heard from Colin but it is obvious that he has made no effort to get the Western gate open. He does not even have the grace to offer us a drink. We return down the track somewhat peeved but notice on the lodge’s entry gates reads – 15 Rand charge to any day visitors should have forewarned us of his unwelcoming attitude to us. Driving out the gates we are tempted to leave the fifteen Rand with a note to stick it where the sun doesn’t shine.
With the sun casting its evening palettes of red we turn off at another sign marked camping. Up a fifteen km track, we come on another lodge. “Sorry the camping is full but we do have a lodge vacant.” It’s late and I can see the girls have had enough for one day. “What for dinner”? We stay the night.
Prior to dinner, I spend a most agreeable hour in a small bird hide. Dinner is with our host and hostess and a hunting guest in the form of an overweight boring German cop and his wife. After dinner, Florence finds a new friend a Bat- Eared Fox. Grayish-brown with enormous ears it has little trouble in winning Florence’s heart. Our host tells us that they mainly eat termites, and mate for life. This one they found injured and it is now a house pet.
With the girls tucked up in bed I have a long chat with our host over a few whiskeys. In his late forties, he has been farming the surrounding land for over fifteen years. It is hard living but it has improved with the establishment of Etosha in 1958. Now all around the park, there are guest farms lodges to cater for the large tourist population that visit Etosha. He knew the layout of the park like the back of this hand and is pleased to mark the best spots to see the big five the sole ambition of American Tourists > Lion, Elephant, Rhino, Cheetah and Leopard.
Like all farmers, he has a fully-equipped workshop with a car pit. In the morning my bread loaf welding is replaced with a professional job compliments of the house. We depart silent and refreshed.
We’ve not gone a half hour when it is about turn in our own dust and up another track with a sign market Cheetahs. Flo and Fanny had heard from our overnight hostess that this lodge had several Cheetahs both tame and wild.
They are our first large predator and our first classical Africa animal could not be passed by with all the promises had made to Florence since we had visited the Mole game reserve in Ghana some months ago. Driving into the lodge we are met by a tame mongoose or to be more correct a Meerkat.
The lodge is constructed in a most strange stone. According to the owners, it is some form of fossilized algae 600-700 million years old. One thing is sure it makes the bar of the lodge agreeably cool.
Stroking a Cheetah is a large jump up from a Meerkat. It is the first large cat of Florence’s life and she is more than hesitant to afford it the same affections as she did to Mr Meerkat down the road. This close without any cage bars stoking its back is like petting a stick of dynamite with the fuse burning. The encounter wets our eagerness to get to Etosha (The great white Place.) one of the many Noah Arks of Africa we are to visit.
One can’t help wondering where all the animals of the world will be in another million years. The man has followed them all over the world since time began. Will he ever be able to communicate with them? If there is no drinking water or pure air will animals outlive man? Share the world with them. Will there be animal’s half animal half man? We still have a lot still to learn from them.
Back in the bar, we learn that both the Kowares and the Galton Gate into Etosha are closed. We head for the main gate named Andersson’s gate after John Andersson who discovered the saltpan (the great white place) with Francis Galton in 1851.
The first thing we are struck by on entering the gates and driving up to Namutoni (one of the three designated camping site in the park) is not an elephant but that we are entering a world of big business. Thirty minutes later we arrive at Namutoni a French Legionnaire fort established in 1851 it served as a control post during the rinderpest epidemic now the main complex of the Park. When the epidemic abated it remained as a trading post with the Owanboland.
Destroyed by the Owambos in 1904 it was rebuilt in 1906 when the German First Lieutenant Adolph Fischer took command of the resident German garrison.
He was later to become the first warden of Etosha. Originally named Omutijamatinda in Hero language to describe ‘ the strong water coming from a raised place’ it is now a national monument and a sanctuary for what remains of Namibia’s four-legged creatures who depend on the thirty or so man-made water holes and springs.
Pitch No 81 is under a large Mopane tree with all modern amenities at hand, power point, water tap, and a barbecue. A large communal block with washing basins, showers, toilets resides in the middle of the trees. There are about twenty other campers on site, not South Africans as they are all well spread out.
The Tourist shop photos have Florence more than annoyed that we have to wait until morning. But she is in for a treat as the waterhole near of campsite is floodlit. So after dinner, we join the waiting congregation. We do not have to wait long. Out of the dark, an Elephant lumbers down to a barrage of flashlights and hissing video cameras. Within a minute, another joins it. It’s to be the first of many more Elephants photos to bore our friends with on our return.
Standing on the concrete terracing with floodlights lighting the waterhole is far removed from seeing a wild free animal. It is a thousand times better than a visiting the Elephant enclosure in a Zoo or for that matter seeing an Elephant in one of today’s large extravaganza circuses but there is no getting away from the feeling of the contrived setting.
The waterhole has a magnetic hold on both animal and its human viewers. Suddenly out of the blue or perhaps more fittingly out of two hundred kilos of vegetable matter with fifty gallons of water a methane bomb explodes. The larger of the two elephants has broken wind. It is a silent and deadly wafting over the terracing. It sends his admirers, tripods, video cameras, and still, photographer’s coughing for cover only a small black and white plover called a blacksmith plover stands its ground. Pecking at the Elephants feet it defends its patch of territory without a gas mask.
Armed with the rules and regulations, a map, and the latest sightings of the big five we all set out for the morning hunt. To the sound of a bugle announcing sun up and the hoisting of the Namibian flag, we set off. Remembering that the gates to the compound close at sundown, we head west skirting the pan. We’ve not gone a few kilometres when we come across our first giraffe. Although we are less than fifty paces away we nearly missed them. The tallest of all four-legged animals standing at 5.3 meters it is hard to believe that one could drive by without noticing them. They are feeding on tall acacia.
With tongues of up to 40cm long, they pick off the early morning unfurling leaves. Giraffes can go without water for up to a month getting all the moisture required from leaves. This is one of the reasons that you can come across them a long way from water. They are non-migratory with a keen sense of smell and skyscraper sight. They are able to run a 56kmph not bad considering they can weight up to 800kg.
On the trot they look like as if they are in slow motion due to the hind legs reaching in front of the rear legs. Changing down to walking pace they switch to simultaneously moving the two legs on either side. It was the held thinking that the long necks evolved to eat high up but now it looks like they are sex symbols > The longer the better. During the mating season longer neck comes in handy to bash you rival suitors with > Called necking. Female’s necks are now also thought to signal I am the one for you. The female after 15 months produces one calf. The poor blighter all 2 meters of him or her is dropped from a high that would but off anyone having to stand up within twenty minutes. Stand they must if they are to avoided one of their few predators the lion. They chew the cud like cows. Have valves to pump blood up to their brains, which are a long way from their hearts. Each has its own unique markings like the register plates of a car. These marking get darker as they age. In the wild unlike captivity where they are known to live up to 35 years they live to about 25/26 years. To drink or eat grass is a pain in the neck. They have to adopt a more compromising position – rather like doing the splits with their front legs.
Most of this we did not know until returning to camp and consulting a book called Africa’s Top Wildlife Countries: Mark W Nolting. (Top TIP: A good animal book gives one a far deeper appreciation of what you are watching.)
Our next encounter is a troop of Baboons > A powerful aggressive animal weighing up to 40 odd kg. Not to be tangled with. There are many different kinds depending on what region of Africa you are in. Ours is a greyish-brown with a green tint along their backs > Known as pig-tailed baboons. They are one of the few animals that have a collection of calls each call signalling a different action. There is one to get up a tree and another to get the hell out of a tree depending on where the attack is coming from. Leopards have a liking for the odd baboon steak. They can distinguish colour and have good smell sense. Live in large groups for social and protective reasons they avoid forests favouring open ground with wooded areas, rocky outcrops. They are not one of the girl’s favourite’s animals. A snarl, bearing those long teeth sends the heebie-jeebies up one’s spine.
Etosha by African standards is a very large park originally 80,000k² has now been dwindled down to 20,700sq km of which quarter is a saltpan once a lake until the river disappeared. This Salt Pan gives the park a very unusual setting for its game. The shallow depression is in the middle of the park is classified as a saline desert. Animals crossing the pan look like they are hovering in the thin air. With a total of over one hundred mammals and a rich bird population of which one-third are migratory, it is a photograph every minute of the day.
We move on towards Etosha middle camp called Halali. The word halali is of German origin. Used to signify that the quarry has been brought to bay and the hunt is over it seems somewhat to fly in the face of what the Park aspires to. Just beyond the campsite, there is a lookout point that looks out over the pan. We stop here for a bit to eat after which we venture out onto the pan on foot. This is a no; no in the park rules. Only your head and shoulders are allowed outside the vehicle. In the shimmering heat of the pan surface, not a thing moves as far as the eye can see. How anything could live out here is mind-blowing. But we don’t venture far just in case.
We move on up to the last camping site called Okaukuejo the main administration camp. Okaukuejo originally meaning “The woman who has a child every year.” is where the Ecological research centre has its headquarters. It directs the conservation projects of Etosha. Along with the compulsory tourist shop, there is a large stone tower built-in 1963, and a vast restaurant, swimming pool. It was once a control post to stop the spread of rinderpest disease> A contagious cattle venereal disease which spreads like wildfire. The very same disease decimated the cattle herd of the Masai.
We return to our base camp visiting a few waterholes on the way. Not another animal do we see. After dinner, the floodlit waterhole is a must. This time armed with gas masks. Out of the darkness, a shape appears. With twitching ears, a Rhino approaches. Very bad eyesight makes it approach agonizing slow. Stopping to smell its surroundings after each step forward it looks like we will be asleep by the time it reaches the water. This one sure knows how to pose for those waiting cameras. Fully frontal ten minutes, side right profile ten minutes, side left profile ten to twelve minutes. Advance a step and repeat. (Top TIP: Telephoto lenses are essential in games parks. Slow film is the better bet, and it is advisable to fit all lenses fitted with UV or haze filters. Bring plenty of Film and spare batteries. A blower brush, cleaning fluid, lens tissue. Keep uses film in a cool box. Digital great but watch out for dust)
Day two: This time we decide not to go charging from one water hole to another but to stake out one of the waterholes recommended by our farmer friend whom we had stayed with the other night. We head off north to another pan edge, drive to a man-made watering hole named Andoni. What a day, our first Lion. He is an old codger that has seen it all. Not a bit fazed by Williwaw he proudly scents a bush beside us and meanders off with attitude.
Top of the food chain their roar can be heard up to nine kilometres. Standing at 1.3 meters high at the shoulders and weighing up to 250kg they can sprint at 50 to 60 km/h and eat at one sitting up to 44kg of meat. They are polygamous breeding every 18 to 26 months. In captivity, they live for up to 20 years in the wild 12 years. They live in prides or groups of more than one family of up to 35 animals. Some, however, live nomadic lives. When they conquer a pride they often kill all the cubs fathered by their rival.
With the excitement over we move on. Next is a small herd of black-faced impala skirts some problematic bush watched over by the male. Favorite fodder of lions they use scattering tactics to confuse their predators leaping up to 9m and as high as 3m. They can live in herds up to a hundred animals breaking up into smaller breeding groups after the dry season. Those males that are not successful in establishing a territory remain in bachelor groups.
In amongst this small herd, we spot a few Kudu a larger antelope than the Impala it has long spiralling horns of up to 1m. Like the impalas only the males have horns. A shy animal it sticks to the cover of bushland.
Our next waterhole produces nothing except a convoy of safari vehicles. Etosha sadly has a large dose of park language. “Have you seen anything”? “Yesterday we saw” “There is an ——- up the road.” At waterholes, you are lucky if you have more than an hour on your own without someone arriving either to scare off what you are watching or park their vehicle in front of you.
We decide to leave and try another spot. Out on the pan in the mid-day blazing sun, we spot a group of Zebra. They say their stripes act as heat deflectors. We can only marvel that they can withstand the heat, which bounces off the pan making them appear and disappear in waves of shimmering vision. Their blurred outline standing in such hostile surroundings gives one a twinge of sadness. We throw in the towel and head back for a swim.
Day three our last and final day: The girls decide to sleep in, so I take Williwaw out to another waterhole in a more isolated part of the park. Nothing moves except the flies the tormentors of both man and beast. An hour passes in silence. It’s like sitting in a block of time with your mind wandering up many avenues of thought but settling on none. Birds, mostly shrike, fuel up for the day. I am thinking to myself that any minute now something will appear and sure enough it does. An American arrives with his private guide. Dressed in whites he is armed with a tripod and camera big enough to bring down a charging Rhino. We are fast approaching the hour of day 10am when most living things bugger off for the day to rest. I am just about to turn the key and scarper when I overhear him enquire from the guide as to what type of fox is that. Down at the water a mangey side-striped jackal is targeted in the lens of his camera. That is it for me I decide on the way back it is time to push on in the morning. Ark Etosha is a bit too commercialized for us but long may its work continue for there many an African who have never seen an Elephant, Rhino or Lion, never mind a Fox.
That night we witness the glorification of this commercialization with the arrival of an overland truck to dwarf all trucks > A land liner/cruise ship on twenty-four wheels. Out pour thirty ages tourists. God help the stars of the park tomorrow.
To be Continued,