Ngepi Lodge and the Zambezi Strip

From the Kunene River Lodge we took a loooooong drive across northern Namibia, stopping for a night back in Rundu for yet another alignment and to spend the night on our way to our next destination. Even though the drive was long it was uneventful and we got to Rundu with plenty of time to spare before the shops closed on the Friday afternoon.

After Rundu it was a relatively short drive the next day to Ngepi Lodge in the Zambezi strip. (The Zambezi strip is the pan handle that comes out of the north-east of Namibia. It used to be called the Caprivi strip but for some reason the government decided to change it a few years ago. I think it was mostly to confuse tourists and because someone had a bone to pick with a cartographer. This of course backfired as they now sold many more maps with the updated name.)

Anyway, back to Ngepi. Ngepi is a quirky lodge famous for its bathrooms (yes, you read that right) and its tree houses along the Okavango river. This was the place Cheryl and I had decided to spoil ourselves and we rented a treehouse that literally sat over the river. It was an open-air room and we woke up each morning to the sunrise gleaming in our eyes from across the river. We really enjoyed the lodge for both its quirkiness and the luxurious feeling of sleeping in a comfortable, plush bed with big, fluffy pillows for the first time in a while. And you’ve got to see the toilets to understand why they’re famous.

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Our room at Ngepi.


Waking up to the sunrise.

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Playing cards.  It was actually pretty cold at night and this night we decided to have a fire and make our own food in a poitje.

The toilets…

While there we took a quick drive to Bwabwata National Park’s Buffalo area (just across the river from Ngepi but it’s a 30km drive up and around over the only bridge) for an afternoon and saw some leisurely game along the river including our first sable antelope and a massive herd of buffalo. Throw in the requisite elephants, hippos, giraffe and kudu and it was a lovely little afternoon of game viewing.

After two nights in our luxurious digs we moved on and decided to try out the Nkasa Rupara National Park as a tune-up for our trip into Chobe National Park (back in Botswana) in the coming days. We luckily sorted out a place to stay in one of the three options by the gate. We were a bit nervous when the community camp was full the next camp we stopped at didn’t offer “camping” just glamping in luxury safari tents way out of our price range. Luckily Livingstone’s Camp had a campsite available so we booked in for the most expensive campsite we had yet stayed at and went into the park. (Though it was expensive the campsites were really nice with private bathrooms and kitchen so probably worth it if that is very important to you and you see it during the day time.)

The park itself is on the smaller side but quite interesting as they have a lot of game concentrated in their smaller area. There is a lot of work being done on the park as it’s a bit behind the times in terms of signage and development but it is a nice place that I would definitely return to if I found myself in the Zambezi strip with an extra day or two on my hands. (Though this time I might reserve a campsite at the community camp ground to avoid the high prices.)

For the last few days we’d been noticing that our rear shocks were getting worse and worse (and the bed of our truck was definitely lower then when we set out) so we decided to jet off early the next morning to stop in Katima Malilo and have it checked out. Unfortunately our rear springs and bushes took a beating along the way in Namibia and gave out. Our passenger side is sitting directly on the chassis while the driver side is completely overloaded and also needs replacing. Of course, the parts which we need to replace them are at least 2 days away back in Swakopmund. Luckily we were able to make a plan with Steve’s (the local garage run by a South African expat) and the local Midas/Cymot franchise to get the springs and bushes ordered and delivered over the next few days.

If everything goes according to plan (and that is a BIG if) the parts should be delivered sometime on Friday afternoon to the Midas. Instead of going straight into Zambia from Botswana after our six nights in Chobe, Cheryl and I will now cross the boarder back into Namibia on Monday morning, pick up the parts from the Midas and take them to Steve’s where Fiona will be fixed up over the next 3 – 4 hours. And if everything REALLY goes according to plan, Cheryl and I will use that time to do our food shopping in preparation for the next 10 days with my folks while that is happening.

Supposing this is all completed by around noon we will then dash off north into our third country for the day and make the long drive to Lusaka to meet Mom and Dad at the Air BnB we’ve arranged for the night, 20kms from the Lusaka Airport. Oh, part of the plan is also for my parents to be picked up at the airport by a local driver since we won’t get there in time any more. Lots of planning. We may have to be flexible but I’m sure we’ll make it work. Somehow.

Next stop: Chobe National Park.

Drive along the Cunene River

Namibia must have thought we were having just too good and epic of a time. It was ready for us. We thought we were ready for it. It had one more curve ball to throw at us. One that we never saw coming.

My last post had us in Epupa Falls and the plan was to take the northern route to Ruacana. This was my description:

“It should take us ~2 days from Epupa to Ruacana. It should be epic. Who needs hiking when we are loving this wild driving so much? We’re sold.”

Well, the curve ball that was thrown but not in the way we had expected a curve ball to come. Instead of breaking down or thinking we were going to be on a smooth open road which turned out to be a treacherous all-wheel-drive experience the exact opposite happened.

As we got to Epupa Falls and enquired about the road we were about to embark down we found out that in fact parts of the northern track had been washed out a couple of years ago and the track had been replaced with a relatively good road that should only take us ~5 hours to get to Ruacana.


Time to change plans. Again.

Instead of an epic 4×4 adventure, we decided to have a few lazy days in preparation for our even lazier days in the Zambezi strip that were coming up. In this light we spent a night at Epupa Camp, right above Epupa falls and took the leisurely drive towards Ruacana, stopping for lunch and finding a campsite at the Kunene River Lodge (yes, for some reason it’s spelt differently then the river which appears to be spelt with a C as in Cunene.) Here we hold up for the next two nights, doing some laundry and sorting ourselves out. Not quite what we had imagined but a nice time nonetheless.

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Blogging along the Cunene River in Epupa Falls.

Epupa Falls: Been there, done that, got the picture. 

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Our campsite at the Kunene River Lodge. 

I think I’ll remember these three days less for the driving and scenery (Epupa falls was nice but once you take the photo there’s not much reason to stick around) but more for the people we met and conversations we had.

In Epupa we met a nice South African couple living in Swakopmund. Semi-retired he’s an Anaesthetist that works 3 weeks at a time and then takes 3 weeks off, swapping duties with his business partner. They were waiting around for two flat tires from a really rough drive the day before to get fixed and recommend we don’t drive that route. (If we had more time we might have considered it…) We had great discussions about Namibia and the importance of always adventuring. They were such lovely people that after only a short conversation of an hour or so they shared their details and insisted we stay with them next time we’re in Swakopmund.

At the Kunene River Lodge I noticed an older man lurking around our campsite as I took a break from doing some washing. He pointed to monkeys in our campsite. I gave a curt nod in recognition and mentioned something about having put away all our food so we weren’t worried. I shooed them off, got the stuff I needed and returned to washing. Only at that point did I realize that he was trying to take a picture of the monkeys I had just shooed away. Whoops!

Later that afternoon, the same man and his wife were walking slowly past our campsite and pointed to our rooftop tent. Somehow, in their limited English and our non-existent German we struck up a conversation. They had just sold their camper in Germany (for a price much higher than they thought it was worth) so they were using that money to take a 3+ week trip to Namibia. This year they are celebrating their combined 160th birthday, 60 years of marriage and the birth of yet another great-grand child. Talk about hitting home the message of “Never stop adventuring!” And seeing them adventuring together at that age was an incredible inspiration. They were looking for someone (besides themselves) to talk to and we chatted over a couple of gin and tonics about the places we’d been and where we’d still love to go. (Almost everywhere.) What a great conversation.

Next stop: Ngepi lodge on the Zambezi Strip.

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This monitor lizard kept coming after us at our campsite at Kunene River Lodge.  I didn’t want to get too close to his claws or that tongue.  Trying to scare it off I rolled a small piece of wood quickly at him and he caught it in his mouth.  He was hungry.

Desert Adventure – Day 6

Things had gone too smoothly. Plans had been achieved a little too easily the previous two days. Our last day of our desert adventure and of course something had to go wrong. We found ourselves in the Hoarusib river where we camped last night searching for the track that was purported to be there. It wasn’t. We drove back and forth and (literally) around in circles. No tracks.

“Do we just go for it ourselves?” we both thought. (I’m sure Cheryl thought this too…)

Our thoughts flashed back to the day before when we drove through the same river much lower down. There we had at least some tracks to follow. We also saw the signs of people who didn’t follow the tracks and had really bad days. (read: deep ruts in the mud with shovel marks all around.) We remembered driving yesterday when we had to turn around lower down in this river and drive around a mountain just to get back into it because we couldn’t find tracks and got stuck.

“I think we’ve got to use Plan B.” we both agreed.

Disappointed we decided to back-track out of the river bed and take a northerly route passed fields with massive herds of oryx, springbok and zebra mixed in with the occasional herd of cattle, to the Khumib river. From there we would be able to join the numbered gravel road to get us back on track.

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Sunrise in the Hoarusib River valley

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We take ‘Leave No Trace” seriously.  Covering our tracks after filling in our fire pit from the night before.  Yes, I’m sweeping the desert…

This time things worked according to plan and although the day was a bit long we ended up all the way in the north of Namibia at Epupa Falls drinking a beer and G&T on the banks of the Cunene river.

My only gripe on the day is this: The proper numbered road was extremely deceptive. We started out feeling great. Cruising along at 50-60km / hour when we noticed a small warning sign. It seemed benign enough. The sign made it look like there was a small bump that would cause a mild inconvenience on our otherwise unobstructed pathway back to (momentary) civilization. It did not state that we were about to enter a technical 4×4 track and that I should slow way the heck down. Suddenly, our open gravel highway turned into a steep incline with loose rocks, axle twisters and big dips. It’s like the road builders got together and said to themselves “what’s the most understated sign possible but where we are still warning people?”

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You can see how good the road was that we were on when we saw a sign just like this one.  Who would have guessed what lay ahead?

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Don’t go off the path to the right.  You may fall in a ravine.  But of course I knew that from the sign that was 6km back.  At least the track here was relatively good or this could have been really interesting.

Next time we saw any sign, like the one that showed a mild bend in the road approaching, we decided to take it very seriously. (This one said next 5km under it which we were amazed at. How do you have a 5km bend in the road? World’s slowest turn?) The bend it turned out wasn’t mild at all but a series of zig-zags and along a sheer drop that eventually led down into a shallow ravine. “These are some of the most subtle and understated sign posts of all time” we thought.

So you can imagine how slowly we proceeded after seeing this sign, half tucked behind a bush.

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The funny thing was, after taking a photo and getting psyched up for what lay ahead, it turned out that there was no real obstacle up ahead after this one. Not even that many turns.  And we had gotten our hopes up!

At least they put signs up though. That’s more than we can say for some other roads we’ve been on.

Desert Adventure – Day 5

I’m sitting tonight in the Hoarusib river (well, the mostly dry bed of the river) after an amazing drive through long stretches of desert, deep sand, hard rock, thick mud, running water, Himba villages, deep canyons, steep graded loose stone inclines, steep dirt declines and pretty much everything else besides tar. It’s the beginning of June (normally winter down this way for my Northern Hemisphere readers) but I’m sitting in shorts and a T-shirt sipping a Windhoek lager. What a day.

As was our plan, to plan day by day, we decided to change plans. Our original, original plan was to do this whole desert trip north to south directly after Etosha, ending in Swakopmund and then heading out to do a day or two of hiking in the Waterberg. Of course that plan was thrown out the window when we went directly to Swakopmund to get Fiona serviced (is it OK to say that in polite company?) so now we are doing the drive south to north instead. We still had the idea of going to the Waterberg but that would require a loooong drive, which would see us criss-crossing all over northern Namibia. Our other option was to continue driving north into northern Kaokoland into the Marianfluss or Hartmann’s valleys. This area is described as “The last true wilderness in Southern Africa.” Since we feel like we are in the deep wilderness we couldn’t imagine what that would be like and we might just have to go.

This morning (well, last night) we decided to scrap both of those plans. No Waterberg. No “true wilderness.” Who needs hiking? We feel like we are already in true wilderness.

Instead, we’ve decided to continue our desert adventure for just two more days and head north to Epupa falls (on one of our original lists for Namibia but got removed a while back as time got tight – yes, believe it or not time still gets “tight” on a 90 day trip.) From there, we’re read out an awesome “northern track” along the Cunene river, which forms the boarder with Angola, to Ruacana falls. It should take us ~2 days from Epupa to Ruacana. It should be epic. Who needs hiking when we are loving this wild driving so much? We’re sold.

Because of that, this morning we decided to high-tail it the rest of the way west down the Hoanib, then north through the desert, before dropping into the Puros Canyon and up the Hoarusib river. There we get through Puros village, along a dirt track and then back into the Hoarusib river where we find a camp spot. That was the plan and we almost made it exactly according to that plan. Except for one small part where we had to detour around a mountain instead of driving through the Hoarusib a second time but we made it back on track.

On top of this, we had an awesome morning drive where we came across our first desert-adapted elephant in the daylight.

The amazing thing about desert elephants is that they’ve actually adapted to living in the harsh conditions of the desert. It may be tough to realize from the picture below that we are in a desert given all of the green around but this is the only real green for long distances to the north or south. These elephants have bigger feet to walk on the soft sand which makes their ankles look narrower. They also have shorter tusks that we’ve noticed tent to go out at different angles but we aren’t sure exactly why.

We continued north through the desert and after a quick pit stop at something our GPS described as “Castle formations” (According to the HMT2DM I gave it a 2, Cheryl gave it a 3. That’s a 2.5 interest level. Add 1 for still being able to get where we’re going and add 1 for not stopping us from doing anything more interesting. That’s a 4.5. Clearly counting as 3 or more. We went there without delay.)

Puros canyon was awesome. It was the first river bed we’ve driven down that actually had water in it. The sand was soft in places and the mud was deep. Luckily, we weren’t the first people to drive this way so we stuck to the main track and got through with no issues. We loved the incredible scenery. Probably our favorite of the trip so far. The photos just don’t capture it.

After the canyon we drove through Puros village and back into the Horarusib after seeing some ostriches and 4 more desert elephants. This time one of them was a baby. Awesome.

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You can really see the contrast here. When I say there is no water to the north our south for the elephants this is what I’m talking about.  Where the river cuts through the sand there is a lush eden.  Everywhere else is another story.

The GPS kept trying to take us up and around a mountain that seemed entirely out of the way. We promptly decided to shut it off and continue up the river as we planned. Once in the riverbed we quickly realized why the GPS was trying to take us a different way. There were no tracks. Well, there was one VERY faint track. We went anyway.

And we got stuck.

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It doesn’t look too bad in the photo but believe me, we were going nowhere.  A quick shovel and some well-placed sand tracks (borrowed from Cheryl’s uncle Bryan) and we were on our way again.

Luckily we got out quickly and after a bit of back tracking back to the main dirt track and we were back on our way. A quick loop around the Himba Sphinx (the name of the mountain that was on the GPS) and we dipped back into the river bed.

A long day of driving but we made it. Should be another long one tomorrow but hopefully we’ll be in Epupa Falls by then.

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Desert Adventure – Day 4

Somewhat astoundingly for everyone involved, things went relatively to plan on Day 4. We woke up at dawn and drove to Aub canyon over rocky dirt roads where we had a lovely breakfast overlooking a small canyon (more of a gorge or ravine but since they call it a canyon we’ll go with that). There was one interesting bit of driving on the way there that required some 4wd-low but we managed just fine without popping any tires or sliding off of any hillsides.

All in a morning’s drive

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Aub canyon.  I’ll let you decide for yourself whether it fully live up to its canyon name or not.

As per our plan we dashed up to Sesfontein on a relatively good gravel road. When waving hello we noticed, to our surprise, a small diesel station which had fuel so we decided to fill up. If we go all the way up to the north we don’t want diesel to be the limiting factor. And, with all the 4-low we are using, we are going through the precious fluid a bit more quickly than we originally expected.

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We had to watch out for these guys on the road.  There were no signs to warn us!

Full of fuel we headed off north of town. We decided to skip the traditional turn-off into the Hoanib river 6km out of town in order to use the Ganamub river and drive south down that back into the Hoanib. (I assume at this point you’ve all got Google maps out to follow our path…)

Just after the turn-off into the Ganamub I am super hungry and have to use the loo. We pull under the first big shady tree we find and as I open the door Cheryl blurts out: “There’s a lion!”

I didn’t get out of the car.

Right next to us was a lioness lying under the tree. Looking a bit closer though and she was a very sickly looking lion with little time left. We took our photos but became more and more uneasy looking at the animal. She really looked to be on her last legs. We also noticed a collar around her neck with a large white box on it. After debating what it could be we settled on it being a GPS tracking device for scientific study. Still, our hearts went out to the dying lion who looked so skinny and whose eyes were nowhere near as sharp as those we had seen in Etosha. Despite how sorry we felt for her, we decided not to get out of the car to share our lunch (or become lunch ourselves) and continued on to find the next shade (or the next, next shade, whichever was furthest from known lion locations.)

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A quick lunch (this time with ample searching around the car before getting out) and a bit of a drive later and we found ourselves camping once again in the wild in the Hoanib river valley. I took a moment to do some exercises after a few long days in the car and we even attempted to wash ourselves with a little soap rather than just baby wipes. We felt refreshed and almost like respectable human beings.

We had a great spot to camp just above the river bed, off to the side, where we could see anything that happened to walk past without getting in its way. It’s a good thing we did too. As we were sitting around the camp fire have a deep discussion about the merits of removing Pluto from the planet list vs. the sentimental value of thinking that there is a cartoon dog orbiting the sun (we were discussing something like that at least) we heard a few twigs breaking in the river bed off to our right. At first we couldn’t tell what it was. It looked like a ghost in the dim moonlight, slowly and silently making its way down the river. As it approached it was clearly an elephant. Slow, silent and massive. It had most likely come from a waterhole slightly further upstream (or at least what should have been upstream if there had been water in the riverbed.)

We aren’t in a national park here, we are in an unprotected area but game still roams wild. It is true wilderness and animals aren’t used to seeing humans here. Because of this we’ve heard that elephants are much more testy here then we got used to in Mana Pools or Etosha.

We got in the car. (Of course I forgot the keys outside of the car though and the tent was open so we weren’t going anywhere too quickly…)

Despite all of the warnings the elephant just sauntered past without merely a glance of recognition in our direction. No “Yo. What’s Up?” No customary bro-to-bro head nod. No trunk up. Nothing. He just walked past. It was eerie though. He was a ghost. And then he was gone.

Now back to Pluto…

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Sometimes you just need to work out after the long days in the car.  Gets the energy out after sitting for so long.

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After a workout I needed a beer. 

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Having a bit of fun with the shadows. 



Desert Adventure – Day 3

After driving past the lion tracks we decided to stay in the Huab river bed and continue exploring its sandy tracks. The scenery only got more and more phenomenal. Cutting through a dry and barren landscape of red clay, black rocks and deep sand is this oasis of green. Towering trees, lush reeds, chirping birds and plenty of mammal tracks. It’s amazing what some water can do.

Our road through the river bed.  Pretty different than the roads we had been on through the desert just the day before.  We knew that just over the ridge was desert again though.

We had gotten a bit delayed in the morning because our tent was soaking wet with dew from the night before so we stopped once the sun broke through the early morning fog to dry it out before it got too moldy smelling. Because of this, we decided to stay in the river bed until it met the main gravel road and follow that north to Palmwag rather than taking smaller dirt tracks all the way north. It was a great decision too. The riverbed was absolutely indescribable and I’m sure the pictures won’t do it justice. Unfortunately we couldn’t find any of the allusive desert elephants, lions or rhinos but we did see a bunch of relatively fresh tracks so we knew they were around (or at least that we were the first people to have gone that way in a long while. Also, there are only about 200 desert rhinos so we don’t really expect to see any, maybe because they are mostly nocturnal…)

We did see quite a few kudu even if we didn’t see the elephants, lions or rhinos.

Once in Plamwag, which we had thought was some sort of town but turned out to be a fuel station and a lodge next to a concession, we debated staying at the lodge campsite to have a shower and relax by the pool, beers in hand. After a quick wobble we regained our senses, thought better of it and headed into the concession for another night of wild camping. This will be the first night camping in an “official” campsite, i.e. we are told where we have to camp, but it is still completely wild. We are located in an elbow in the dry Aub riverbed with a cliff on one side and riverbed leading through to an open plain on the other. Unlike the previous few nights there are few trees around.

At camp for the evening.  In these photos you can see Cheryl demonstrating two important parts of camp life: 1) cleaning our feet with baby wipes before putting on socks and/or going to sleep – it’s the little things but this makes you feel oh, so much better. And 2) pouring wine.  Notice she is using a 5L water jug.  Only the classiest for us but our 5L box of wine started leaking so we used what we had! (That or Cheryl turned the water into wine but I’m pretty sure that one’s been done before.)

The Palmwag concession is a large privately-owned area. The ground is largely itself is a rocky landscape with small shrubs dotting the red sand and black rock mixture. The trees here are quite small, almost pigmy-esque. We’ve debated whether they are gigantic banzai trees or miniature baobabs. Jury is still out but either way they look really interesting.

This was pretty much the landscape in Palmwag.  Though to be fair there were a few more trees around than these pictures let on.

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I don’t know how these zebra didn’t break their legs running over all of these loose rocks but there were actually quite a few of them.  Notice this is Hartman’s Mountain zebra because the stripes go all the way down the legs and it doesn’t have the faint brown stripe between the black stripes like the Burchell’s Plains zebra.


Tomorrow we plan to set out for the Aub canyon for a view (described as a ‘must-see’ by our BF Goodrich guide to off-roading in Namibia so our hopes are high. Seriously, this short guide has been phenomenal in recommending where to go. Almost this whole desert adventure wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for that guide.) From the Aub we’ll continue out of Palmwag and up to Sesfontein. We only plan to stop here briefly and wave hello before continuing out of town as quickly as possible and into another riverbed where we hope to camp wild again tomorrow.

Today’s driving had everything from gravel road to deep sand to steep rocky inclines to tyre-shredding rocky declines.

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As an aside, after no showers for a while we will be very smelly by the end of these 7 days…

Desert Adventure – Day 2

Since we didn’t make it as far as we thought we would yesterday, we weren’t going to make it as far as we thought we would today either. Originally we had designs on making it all the way to Palmwag today. Not gonna happen.

We woke up with the sun and went about our business of packing up the tent (we packed up the rest of the camp the night before in case of a rain storm and needing to make moves out of the rive bed in a hurry…) We had a bit of a leisurely breakfast and set out again after covering our tracks at the campsite and filling in our braai pit so we didn’t spoil the wilderness for the next people driving through.

I hadn’t mentioned in the last post that as it was getting dark we could no longer find the way to continue up the Ugab river and assumed we would have more luck in the morning. We didn’t. The tracks just seemed to end no matter which way we tried. We tried and tried again, almost getting ourselves stuck. Still no way to go.

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It turns out this was the correct way to go. Someone had tried to go that way and had a really bad day a few days before. Impossible to pass.

Plan B was to backtrack all the way back down the river and take an exit out to a well-graded road up and around the river to the Rhino Camp. As this was our only option (besides back tracking all the way to the main road) we took it. A few hours of driving through river bed (we didn’t get stuck this time) up craggy hills and through Mars-like landscape and we arrived at the Rhino Trust campsite.

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Driving out of the riverbed from the night before we realized it was questionable whether we were actually allowed to stay there. No one said anything though so we assume it was fine. (It may be because we saw no one but still.)

We decided not to stay but made some pleasantries to find out about the roads north. All clear. Though there’s no way we were making it to Palmwag, they said. They were right.

We drove through steep canyons and out into an incredible desert where we spent almost the entire afternoon. The scenery was stunning. A lot of it also looked very similar and it was tough to tell where you were going.  At one point we found ourselves getting turned around but luckily Cheryl quickly noticed (after 15 minutes – mind you, I hadn’t noticed anything amiss) that the sun was on the wrong side of the car and we turned around again to correct our mistake.

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Looking out across the desert.  No flowing sand dunes here. The colors varied but mostly a red dirt-like material.  And lots of dust.  Lots and lots of dust.

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One of the welwitschia plants for which the area is famous

As the sun was getting low the desert gave way to the Huab river (again mostly a dry river bed) and we descended into the valley. It was some of the most beautiful landscapes either of us have ever seen. There was no doubt in either of our minds: we would be camping down there for the night.

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Checking to make sure this water was driveable.  It got quite deep in the track but we decided we could do it.  Fiona had no trouble but it did make our hearts race when we dropped in and it was deeper then we thought.  Doesn’t look like it but it went up almost to the hood! Also shows the great contrast between down by the river bed and the desert beyond that we had been driving through all day.

When the road to the Huab River look-out point wasn’t passable we decided to set up camp on some high ground just above a reed-filled area. Our mistake was that we were right next to a bush which blocked our view to one side. Naturally, as the sun dipped behind the mountains and the moon came out, so did the lion grunting: coming from the direction behind the bush.

“It’s far away” I assured Cheryl.

“It’s just the echo that makes it seem close.” Cheryl agreed.

More grunting. Louder this time.

“Maybe let’s move the fire closer to the car.” I offered. We did.  We dug a new braai pit and picked up the fire with a shovel to move closer.  The next couple of hours were spent listening and watching before going to bed. No cats in sight. Though we heard them throughout the night.

In and around our campsite for the evening.  The scenery was absolutely stunning.  We could have stayed there for days!

The next morning as we were packing up I heard more grunting. This time from the other direction. It sounded very close. Very, very close. I called out to Cheryl to listen with me. Nothing. Was I just hearing things?

We finished packing and as we were driving out from our campsite, just around on the other side of a koppie (small hill) we found the tracks. Two sets of very clear cat tracks. Maybe 40 meters from camp.

We tracked them for a while but couldn’t spot them. Bummer.

Cat tracks near camp.  The close-up is of a smaller set, not the ones from the road.  We drove down that track on the left but never found the lions.

You may be thinking: “This is nothing new, you had 13 lions in your campsite in Mana Pools!” and you’d be quite right. The big difference here is that we weren’t in a protected area. This wasn’t a national park. This was truly out in the wild. Desert (adapted) lion are quite rare so it would have been an amazing sighting to have seen them out in the open at our camp. Let alone anywhere in the riverbeds.

On we go!

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One last picture, just for fun. 

Desert Adventure – Day 1

Our directions for today read like something out of a fantasy novel:

(These are literally the directions)

Drive north on the Great Salt Road passed St. Nowhere

Take a right turn into the mouth of the Ugab river (if you get to the Skeleton Coast you’ve gone 7km too far)

Drive 70km up the river bed and try not to get stuck by any of the treacherous obstacles: deep sand, mud flats, sharp rocks which can shred tires, to name just a few.

Oh, also try not to get eaten by a desert lion, trampled by a desert elephant or gorged by a desert rhino (While in the riverbed our GPS literally said: take a right turn onto “Elephants”)

Eventually you should end up at the Save the Rhino Trust campsite

We were only able to leave Swakopmund just after 11AM. Our errands took longer than expected but we made north with haste up the Great Salt Road along the coast. Yes, salt road. Namibia is world-renowned for its unpaved roads and this one is a beauty. It is made out of a mixture of salt and dirt, forming a smooth, hardy surface which almost appears tar-like at times. We’d been warned that although it seems great, it can get slippery when it was wet and foggy out. It was wet and foggy today. We didn’t test the limits of its traction.

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The road looks like tar but it’s actually salt and dirt.

Following the rest of our directions we got past St. Nowhere without issue but that’s just about the only thing we did right. We drove right past the Ugab river and got to the Skeleton Coast so we turned around. We turned down a road that was in relatively good condition and thought “We’ll get to Save the Rhino Trust Campsite in no time!” We were wrong.

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Our first road was easy to drive but the landscape was spectacular.  It looked like we were driving on the moon!

We turned off the road down a steep embankment into the riverbed. It was mostly dry but for the odd muddy bit. Not too many people had come this way but there were clear tracks to follow so we charged forward fearlessly (though with a bit of tingly nerves for good measure.)

The riverbed started out smoothly and I proudly proclaimed to Cheryl “we’ve only got to average 20km / hour and we’ll make it to camp before sunset. We’re golden!”

We were not golden.

We did not average 20km per hour.

We did NOT follow the directions.

We got stuck. After 5 attempts and 45 minutes we extracted ourselves.

We got stuck again. (This time we got out our first try, mostly because we listened to Cheryl’s advice.)

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The first time we got stuck.  You can tell it’s the first time because I’ve got a big smile on my face.  All part of the adventure right?

Still stuck.  Less smiling.  We did eventually get out and continue on our way.  Then the smiles came back big time.

We were still 30+kms from the camp when the light was starting to fade. Instead of pushing on we stopped at a relatively flat spot on somewhat high ground and set up camp. That’s the beauty about having everything you need with you at all times.

We lit a fire, cooked some delicious chicken a la Sweet Baby Ray over an open fire and settled in for a relaxing evening trying desperately to follow the rest of the directions about not getting eaten, trampled or gorged.

Our camp set-up that night.  Nobody around in any direction.  It is the best part about driving around with everything you need with you all the time.  Just set up and you’ve got your own piece of paradise.

Luckily, we were able to follow those and we had a great night to ourselves. We think the closest people to us were around 35km away. That said, we also realized that meant absolutely nobody knew where we were so we decided to send a quick SMS via our sat phone to Cheryl’s dad so somebody knew where to start the search party in case things turned out poorly.

They didn’t turn out poorly. It was awesome!

A quick layover in Swakopmund

Since we had to go to Swakopmund we of course decided to take the long way through a bit of desert and into Walvis Bay. The desert was interesting but only a small foretaste of the desert to come. Like a desert appetizer.

There’s not much to do or see in Walvis bay but we did hear that we could find flamingos there. Since we didn’t have any flamingo sightings recorded in our bird book we couldn’t pass it up. On our way we heard of the Walvis Bay Bird Paradise. Perfect place for there to be lots of flamingos! Well, not. The gate was closed and the place didn’t look like much anyway. Instead we continued on to our next exciting destination: The Salt Works. This area of Namibia makes lots of the salt that is consumed in South Africa so we wanted to check it out to see what we were eating. We saw piles of salt from the distance but were too distracted by the flamingos in the bay to stop. Instead, we took a right turn and finally got our flamingos. Beautiful, pink, flamingos.

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Turns out this was not a bird paradise.  Still took a picture of the sign but that was unfortunately the only picture worth taking here.

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OK, enough about birds.

Our first impression of Swakopmund was not a very good one. We pulled into a town shrouded in a dense fog that formed water droplets on our wind shield. Since we hadn’t booked for anywhere to stay we did a quick search of the town and ended up at the Desert Sky Backpackers, deciding to treat ourselves to a real bed and a nice shower. Our new plan had us hopefully heading out the next afternoon but deep down we both knew it would be longer then that.

We got Fiona into the shop early the next morning and spent most of the day holed up in the Backpackers planning the remaining part of our trip.

Plan for rest of Namibia: Take it day by day and decide not to plan but one day in advance. We have booked to be in the Caprivi strip (at our next treat to ourselves in a tree-house overlooking a river) in 9 nights so that leaves us with 8 to be flexible with. We’ll be driving north through western and northern Damaraland and up into Southern Kaokoland. Maybe we’ll get to northern Kaokoland but we’ll see.

We expect to be driving through desert and arid land for the next week plus. We also expect to see very few people. Most likely we’ll be camping in the complete wilderness, not in any allocated campsites but wherever looks like a good spot as the sun is about to go down.

No matter what happens, it is going to be an adventure…

We did a bit more planning for when my parents arrive as well before we got stir crazy and went out for a run along the waterfront.

Wow, did our impression of Swakopmund change when we were on the run! With the sun shining we found a town lost somewhere between Europe and Africa with heavy German influences on a distinctly Namibian, laid-back beach town attitude. We enjoyed the quirky paint jobs of the stairs and railings along the promenade while people watching the other exercisers. It is the off-season so there weren’t the throngs of people that we heard can envelop the town. It was beautiful.


Quick stop for a selfie while on the run.  Good excuse for me to get Cheryl to take a break without showing her that I was beat.

In the spirit of treating ourselves we went out for dinner to “The Jetty”. It is out at the end of a, guess what, jetty, sitting over the ocean. The walk out the jetty is a bit disconcerting with waves crashing below you and causing the wood to sway ever so slightly. The seafood platter we shared was delicious though and the walk back across the jetty was definitely easier after a bottle of wine.

Since we only got our car back late last night, this morning we have to finish our errands (tire alignment, national park permits for the next few days, fill up our propane gas, re-pack Fiona…) and get driving as soon as possible.

Into the great Etosha National Park

We had heard so much about Etosha that by the time we arrived there we no longer knew what to expect:

“You have to just camp by a waterhole the whole day – it’s the only way to see things in Etosha.”

“All the game is hidden, nobody is seeing anything there any more.”

“Etosha has the best game in Southern Africa.”

“The campsites are awful and there are too many people.”

There’s only one thing to do when you hear such diverging opinions about a place: go there and see for yourself. So that’s what we did.

We took the road north-west from Maun, Botswana and crossed into Namibia at the base of the Zambezi Strip (previously the Caprivi strip but they changed the name a couple of years ago just to keep tourists on their toes.) The road out of Botswana was deceptive. At first we were cruising along at 120kph when out of nowhere the road disappeared into a bottomless pothole. Cheryl didn’t see it in time. Or the next one. Then I didn’t see a couple after that. We needed an alignment. It was described by the technician when we took it in as “Bad, real baaaaad.” Glad we got it fixed.

We spent a night in Rundu, Namibia where we stayed at the Kaisosi river lodge. We only pulled in pretty late so we didn’t see much of the river but we did enjoy our own shower and toilet for a change. Good place for a quick stop.

After getting the alignment in Rundu and doing a few errands we drove on to Tsumeb and stayed at a great campsite that was more of a resort called Kupferquelle. We did all of our shopping except when I needed to get propane to fill up our cylinder the next day the two shops in town were closed. It was explained to me that, even though it was indeed mid-week it was “like a Sunday” because it was a public holiday so the shops were closed. Classic. This is why we got two gas cylinders in the first place even when people said we only needed one. Stick to your guns. Cheryl did get some work done that she needed to do that day though and we were soon dashing off at full speed towards Etosha National Park.

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There was a line (read: one car in front of us) at the entrance gate so we got out and had a quick selfie with the sign.

We arrived in Etosha three things immediately stood out to us:

1. There were paved roads.

  • It turned out that just the entrance roads from the main gate were paved. Most of the roads in Etosha are dirt roads but they are extremely well maintained. The speed limit in the park is the fastest I’ve seen anywhere at 60kms an hour and there were multiple times that we found ourselves pushing this limit in order to get to a waterhole in the morning. What a difference to the flooded, overgrown, pothole-ridden, mud-filled roads we’d been driving on in other parks.

2. The staff was rather rude.

  • The staff here have to deal with a lot more people then the other parks we went to. These tourists are probably also more demanding. I guess I’m not surprised they have bad days every now and then. It was just a shock after everyone else we’ve encountered so far on our trip has been overly friendly.

3. There were a lot of people.

  • Coming from a bunch of parks where we saw barely anyone, especially when camping in the remote campsites in Zimbabwe and the Central Kalahari, it was a disturbing to see so many cars on the road. That said, it wasn’t as crowded as, say, Kruger and definitely nowhere near the Pilanesberg but there were a lot of cars. All in all though we found there was space on the roads so we didn’t have a lot of “traffic jams” except for a couple of times when we were at sightings of exceptional animals that were rather stationary (e.g. some cheetah by the side of the road.) We were often lucky enough to be at these early to get a good spot though and the roads were often big enough for everyone to see.

Overall, the positives of Etosha definitely far outweighed the negatives for us. The campsites, though quite cramped and rather uninspiring, were well kept and all had lovely waterholes with interesting game coming around. Speaking of game, we had some great sightings! Lots of lion, rhino, cheetah and a leopard. On top of all of the other great game like black-faced impala, ostrich, elephants, massive herds of zebra, a honey badger; we saw a ton. (For a list of all noteworthy sightings see below.)

Every day we got up and out the gate of the camp as soon as they were open and drove straight to a waterhole which we would choose the night before. Once there we would just wait. Two mornings we were greeted by a pride of lions when we arrived. Even on our way to the waterholes we would see lion (the big male crossing the road below is one such example), hyena and lots of other great game. The trick was to enjoy them but not for too long so you still get to the waterhole before the crowds of tourists in rental vehicles and safari buses get there. This way you stake your claim to a great spot and just sit and enjoy without having to jostle for space later on.

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Cheryl spotted this guy 100 m off the road and he proceeded to walk right in front of us. 

Our best sighting at a morning waterhole was a pride of lions clearly playing with each other. After an hour or so we even saw a live kill! Mind you it wasn’t what either of us expected a live kill to be. The adult male was going off to have a look at a crane or some other big bird but gave up and sauntered back to the pride. Out of the blue he pounced and as he came up he had a small korhan (bird that lives in the grass and makes lots of noise as you drive past) in his jaws. It was really fun to see. He definitely did not want to share the bird with the others but he kept getting a bunch of feathers stuck in his mouth. Then he played keep-away from the younger male and a female until he eventually he gave up on eating it entirely. How cool!

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Playing early in the morning

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This bird was his and he wasn’t sharing!

Besides the lions, my favorite part about Etosha was the waterhole at Okakuajo camp. It is a floodlit waterhole with a fence on one side to keep the people in the camp (and maybe some animals out.) Almost every night it is visited by rhinoceroses and elephants looking for a drink. We wound up spending two nights at this camp (due to an on-the-fly change from 2 nights in Olifantsrus to only 1 night so we could go back to the Okakuajo waterhole.) At one point on our second night we saw 6 rhino at one time at the waterhole. One of them was a bit belligerent and clearly didn’t like that some other rhinos had the audacity to drink water at the same time as him and we got to witness an intense stand-off with a lot of grunting and charging. I can’t imagine that I’ll have another opportunity to see something like this so I took hundreds of photos (most of which are extremely blurry because I had to have a long shutter speed but luckily rhino have a high propensity to stand still and play like a rock for a while) and we stayed to enjoy them for hours.

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Mama rhino and her baby.  Notice they cut off some of the rhino horns, like this female’s.  We think it was an anti-poaching method since it doesn’t hurt the rhino this way.

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Two rhinos with a lot of grunting and harumphing.  Eventually one got bored but not after a few charges. It was too dark to capture any of the charges nicely though.

Day 0:

Didn’t see much as we entered the park a bit late and had to drive back to the main gate to sort out that we reside in South Africa so are supposed to pay less then residing in ‘foreign’ which was the other option (besides, of course, Namibia). Still did see some nice plains game on the side of the tar road though.

Day 1:

Jackals playing, lots of black-faced impala, giraffe, honey badger, hyena, eland, steenbok, a couple elephants, and of course zebra, kudu, springbok etc.

Day 2:

11 lions, jackals, 3 cheetah (and a missed kill), lots of elephants, 5 rhino, lots of different birds (I’ve turned into quite a “birder by convenience” as Cheryl calls me. I’m interested in birds when there’s not something else interesting to see. Sounds about right.) and of course all of the other good stuff.

Day 3:

More rhino, hyena eating, 1 big male lion crossing road right in front of us, 7 additional lion just lazing around, leopard, and a really cool waterhole experience with giraffe, zebra and a rhino all trying to drink at the same time.

Day 4:

Tons and tons and tons of elephants, 3 more lion (another solitary male and 2 females), lots of cool kudu and herds of zebra and of course the great rhino experience I described above.

Day 5:

Got up early to head straight out of the park. Took a quick waterhole stop and saw a few jackals. No big bang hurrah to say goodbye but we left with great memories from the previous days.

Next stop: Swakopmund!