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A perfect holiday destination?

Namibia Introduction


View Namibia road trip 2004 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Ballooning over the Namib Desert

The first trip I ever wrote about on Virtual Tourist was the one we took to Namibia in 2004, about a year before joining that community. My reviews were sketchy as I hadn’t then got into the habit of keeping a proper record as I travelled, apart from jotting down a few notes about the photos I took. So this retrospective blog will be equally sketchy, I suspect, but hopefully still of interest to a few readers and an interesting small slice of my travel history for me.

Here’s how I introduced that long-ago VT page:

In a lot of ways this is just about the perfect holiday destination. The scenery is spectacular, especially if like me you love deserts; the wildlife is interesting (though probably not on a par with the classic safari destinations); there are some truly wonderful places to stay, the food is good and the wine excellent, and everywhere you go the welcome is friendly.

Getting around

One of the joys of a holiday in Namibia is that you can drive yourself - perfect if, like us, you prefer to be able to stop when, where and for as long as you please. And you don't need a four-wheel drive for most of the main roads. Be careful though - most roads are gravel not tar and it's very easy to skid and spin the car, as we found out!

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On the road in Namibia
~ Chris with our hire car

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On the road in Namibia
~ local style

Where to stay

There's a good choice of accommodation, and although camping is popular it isn't the only way to see this wonderful country. If you feel like a bit of luxury you can find it in the amazing lodges (Huab and Okonjima were our favourites), if you prefer something more simple there are little pensions or the state-run places in Etosha, and for ‘camping’ with a difference you could try sleeping out under the stars at one of the desert lodges like Kulala!

Wonderful wildlife

Although it's not such an obvious destination for wildlife as maybe Kenya or Tanzania, there's still plenty to be found. Etosha National Park has elephants, rhino, wildebeest and loads of zebra! If you're lucky (unfortunately we weren't!) you may see the elusive desert elephants further north, but for us the wildlife highlight was seeing the cheetahs at Okonjima.

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Zebra, Etosha National Park

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Kudo near Huab Lodge

Friendly people

We met lots of great people on our travels - running hotels (like Jan and Susi at Huab, Sam in Swakopmund and others), our fellow tourists and also some really excellent guides such as Francis who took us on a great tour of Sossusvlei.

Our route

Namibia is a big country and the gravel roads mean that you can’t cover large distances, so you need to plan your route carefully to fit in everything you most want to see, especially if like us your time is limited. We had only two weeks, so had to make some tough decisions about what not to see as well as what we would fit in. With that amount of time you can realistically see either the northern half, or the southern half, or as we decided to do, focus on a band in the centre.

This meant that Fish Canyon in the south, and the Caprivi Strip in the north were off our list. Regretfully we eliminated the Skeleton Coast too, on grounds of cost – that, and the Caprivi Strip, are still very definitely on the list for a return visit!

So what route did we follow? Starting from Windhoek we drove south to the Kalahari and then west to the Namib Desert and Sesriem. Then north and west again to Walvis Bay and Swakopmund. From there further north up the coast and then inland to Damaraland and beyond to Etosha. Finally, we drove back south to Windhoek.

This route filled the two weeks comfortably. With a little more time, and hindsight, I would have split the drive from Sesriem to Swakopmund into two days as it was long and tiring on those roads, and I would have tried to fit in an extra day in Swakopmund so we could have done one of the flights over the Skeleton Coast (by the time we arrived the next day’s tours were booked up, and we had to leave the following day). But on the whole this route worked well for us given that we had limited time and money.

We pre-booked our car hire and all accommodation through a specialist tour agency here in the UK, Sunvil, and were provided with a good map which marked all the fuel stations in the country (an essential item if driving there) and tips on safe driving on the mainly gravel roads.

In the following pages I’ll cover all of the places mentioned above and more, and share some of my favourite photos of the landscapes and wildlife of this beautiful country, which I summed up back then as:

A visual feast: red sand, blue sky and the brightest stars you'll ever see

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The dunes of Soussevlei, and a Bottle Tree at Huab Lodge

We visited Namibia as we were transitioning from 35 mm photography to digital, and I took photos in both formats. Unfortunately, despite turning the house upside down, we haven’t been able to find our slides from that trip (every other trip but not that one!) so I have only a limited number of photos of some of the places we visited to share here. I do have a few slides on my hard drive, which I previously scanned for my Virtual Tourist page, so I know they must be somewhere in the house. They will probably turn up in an unlikely corner just as I finish all my blog entries

We flew to Windhoek from London via Johannesburg, so I’ll pick up the story in my next entry with our arrival in Namibia …

Posted by ToonSarah 02:06 Archived in Namibia Tagged trees desert road_trip wildlife hotel cars roads africa safari zebra namibia photography national_park Comments (22)

Game viewing in Etosha

Namibia Days Ten to Twelve


View Namibia road trip 2004 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Signpost in Etosha National Park

We had spent the morning visiting the black eagle chick in his nest at Huab Lodge and not left until after lunch, but following Suzi’s recommended short cut we arrived at Etosha National Park in good time.

We had our first exciting sighting on the road between the park entrance and our accommodation, when I spotted a rhino quite a long way off on our left. The sun was already quite low in the sky and the rhino was backlit, but we managed to get a couple of passable photos.

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Rhino, late afternoon sun

Okaukuejo Camp

When planning this trip we had the choice of staying inside the park in one of several government-run rest camps (with fairly basic chalet style accommodation) or outside in more up-market lodges with organised game drives included. We chose the former – partly because we needed to balance the books as some of our other choices were splurges, and partly because we quite liked the idea of exploring on our own.

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Warthogs fighting on the lawn at Okaukuejo Camp

Our choice was Okaukuejo Camp because of its good location on the south side of the park near the gate where we arrived, Ombika. This is the oldest tourist camp in Etosha. Our room was in a chalet, reminiscent of the old British holiday camps, and wasn’t particularly well-equipped, although I guess things could have improved since 2004. It was especially short on blankets, which in the chilly July nights was a major draw-back!

On this first day we only had time to settle into that sparse chalet (no photos as this was pre-VT days and I had no interest in photographing such dull accommodation!) and go to dinner. Here we found the other down-side of Okaukuejo – meals were self-service in a large dining hall that had all the atmosphere of a school canteen, and the quality of the food was a bit patchy, although the meat was pretty good. One nice thing though was that some local children came to perform songs and dances during the meal.

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Evening entertainment

After dinner we went to the camp’s main attraction, a permanent waterhole which is floodlit at night and attracts a fair amount of game. This is the centre of camp nightlife! Everyone gathers round the hole after dark to see what animals are visiting. We were thrilled to see a mother and baby rhino this evening, although it was too dark (despite those floodlights) to take photos of them, at least with the limited equipment we had back then.

The next morning we were up early for an equally dull buffet breakfast, the compensation being spotting some oryx down at the waterhole.

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The camp waterhole with oryx

Etosha National Park

The best time for game viewing in Etosha National Park is from May to September, the cooler months in Namibia, and as we were there in July we hoped to see plenty of animals. I’d read that visitors can usually expect to see antelope, elephant, giraffe, rhino and lions, and in our short stay we managed to see all of these (although the lions only at night). Apparently, some lucky visitors also see leopard and cheetah, but we didn’t find any here, although we were to see the latter a few days later at Okonjima. There is a good network of roads linking the rest camps and various waterholes and other game viewing spots, all of which are navigable with a regular saloon car, so driving yourself is a possibility here as an alternative to guided game drives.

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Wildebeest obeying the sign on our car window
(the sign is there to remind tourists to drive on the left, hardly a problem for us!)

So as soon as we’d finished our breakfast, we set off on our independent game drive. A detailed map showed us what roads were accessible to us, all of which were on the southern edge of the great salt pan, plus waterholes, viewpoints, picnic area etc. We mapped out a route that would take us quite close to the far end, with several detours off to promising-sounding waterholes.

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Zebras

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Another zebra
(taken by Chris)

Etosha Game Park was declared a National Park in 1907. It covers an area of 22 270 square km, and while it isn’t as abundant with game as some of the more famous parks on the African continent, it is home to 114 mammal species, 340 bird species, 110 reptile species, 16 amphibian species and one species of fish.

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Springbok

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Ostrich

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Wildebeest

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More wildebeest

Etosha means ‘Great White Place’, and the name suits the landscape, which is dominated by a massive mineral pan. This covers around 25% of the National Park and was originally a lake fed by the Kunene River. However, the lake dried up when the course of the river changed thousands of years ago. The pan is now a large dusty depression of salt and dusty clay which fills only if the rains are heavy and even then only holds water for a short time. But the springs and water-holes which remain along the edges of the pan attract large concentrations of wildlife and birds, and are the prime spots for viewing game.

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Waterhole with zebras, springboks and elephants
~ what looks like the sea beyond is the pan

Exploring the park

Our day is pretty much a blur now, writing so long after the event, but I know from my VT review and what photos I could find (as I said in my intro, the 35mm slides I know I took have somehow ‘disappeared’ from our collection) that we saw we saw lots of zebra, giraffe, wildebeest, several different species of antelope, a herd of elephants and a few ostriches.

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Ostrich, and oryx

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Giraffes

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Ground squirrel at our lunch stop

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Zebra crossing!

My favourites are always the elephants, and towards the end of the afternoon we found a large herd at a water-hole – definitely the highlight of our self-made game drive for me!

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Elephants at a waterhole

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Sunset at the waterhole

In the evening we watched the sunset over a beer by the camp’s waterhole, and after another uninspiring buffet meal returned to the viewing terrace from where we were excited to see a lion come down to drink, although again too dark to take photos. An exciting end to the day’s game viewing and our short stay at Etosha.

Tomorrow we would head to our final lodge in Namibia, and one of the best!

Posted by ToonSarah 08:27 Archived in Namibia Tagged animals birds sunset wildlife hotel elephants africa safari zebra namibia national_park giraffes salt_flats etosha Comments (14)

Travelling to Fathala

Senegal day two


View Senegal 2016 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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River bank in Banjul, from the ferry

Having spent the night at the Kombo Beach Hotel, we were up early and eager to set off for Senegal. But first came breakfast. This was included in our stay and served buffet-style. We didn't have time to sample everything because of our early departure for the ferry, but what I did have was good - a roll with pineapple and ginger jam, a croissant and wonjo juice (made from hibiscus flowers – delicious). The exception was the coffee which was weak and flavourless. However, on our second visit to the hotel at the end of our trip I found the coffee rather better, so maybe I was just unlucky this first time.

The Banjul ferry

We were picked up after breakfast by a driver who took us and three other tourists to catch the ferry in Banjul. We arrived at the port in good time and stood chatting for a while before the boat arrived. When it did so it was packed with people travelling to the capital to start the working day – some carrying goods to sell at the markets, some coming to buy; some dressed, it appeared, for office work, others labourers probably seeking day work; school children in uniform and a few goats and chickens!

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Ferry passengers in Banjul

After the people, the cars and lorries trundled off, and then it was our turn to board. Thankfully at that time of day the northbound voyages are quieter so there was plenty of room.

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Boarding the ferry in Banjul

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River bank in Banjul, from the ferry

On our driver's advice we secured seats up on the top deck while he guarded the luggage down below. It took a while for some lorries to come aboard but once they had we were off.

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Departing from Banjul

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Ferry passengers

The crossing took about thirty minutes (I gather though it can be as much as forty or fifty) and we then disembarked, being careful to stay out of the way of the lorries doing the same.

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The north bank of the river

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Disembarking in Barra

Fathala Lodge

We were met here by a driver from the lodge we were heading to in Senegal, Fathala. The drive took about an hour, with a stop at a police-check and further stops at both the Gambian and Senegalese borders. The scenery was dry, dusty but rather attractive bush, and the road well-surfaced, so we enjoyed our journey - indeed, I would have been happy if it were a little longer!

[Aside: this was perhaps just as well, as two days later we were to repeat the trip – a broken tooth meant a return to Banjul for a morning for dental treatment, helpfully arranged by the hotel manager and staff.]

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On the road to Samé

Fathala Lodge lies not far from the border near a small village called Samé. It claims be a unique hotel for Senegal – a tented lodge on a private wildlife reserve. Accommodation is in large tents set along boardwalks that lead away from the public areas on either side. As we were shown to our tent, about halfway along the row to the left of the central area, we were warned to stay on the boardwalks at all time, as the long grass below often harboured snakes. You can believe that we followed this advice to the letter!

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Our tent

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The tents all have mosquito nets, free-standing bath tubs and twin washbasins. In a separate block behind are two outdoor showers (I love outdoor showers!). There is plenty of storage, a small fridge, tea and coffee, but no TV – this is an away-from-it-all destination.

The public areas are all open air under a large thatched roof. There is lots of comfortable seating, a bar and restaurant, and a small plunge pool with sun loungers. The atmosphere is one of casual but well-designed comfort, with local crafts, a few antelope skulls and similar African decorative touches. There is free wifi available here, although not in the tents.

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Bar and lounge

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Plunge pool and deck

We had arrived in time for lunch which we had on the terrace overlooking the lodge’s small waterhole just beyond the plunge pool. This naturally attracts local wildlife. If you are lucky (we weren’t, either today or throughout our stay) this will include the resident white rhino, as well as the frequently-visiting waterbucks. But we did spot some warthogs this afternoon, getting us in the mood for our planned afternoon activity.

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Warthogs at the waterhole

Safari drive in Fathala Reserve

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In the reserve, Fathala

The lodge has a variety of activities on offer (all of which are available to non-residents, by the way, who come on day trips from hotels in nearby Gambia). We signed up for a number of these as soon as we arrived, starting today with a safari-style drive in Fathala’s own game reserve.

The reserve has been stocked with some species that would once have been at home in Senegal, such as giraffe and rhino, and of course has still-native species including a wide variety of birds and several monkeys. A highlight of the reserve is the rare Western Giant Eland (also known as the Giant Derby Eland) which is bred here as part of a rescue programme for this endangered species.

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Western Giant Eland

We went out in the late afternoon with a driver plus a local guide who spoke good English and was adept at spotting the animals and telling us something about them. We didn't see all the species that the reserve has (you would have to be exceptionally lucky to do so) but we did see a lot, including several of the Western Giant Eland. On our drive this afternoon we also saw ...

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Plains Zebra

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Giraffes

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Patas Monkey
- we saw both Red and Green Patas Monkeys, but I'm not sure which this is, although my guess is red!

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Warthogs

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Roan Antelopes

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Waterbuck, and another Western Giant Eland

We also saw lots of birds.

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Both Red-billed and Grey Hornbills

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Palm Nut Vulture

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Abyssinian Roller

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Blue Glossy and Purple Starlings

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Stone Partridge

Plus some I failed to get decent photos of:
African Harrier Hawk
Rose-ringed Parakeet
Red-eyed Dove
Guinea Fowl
Drongo

We stopped a little before sunset, when the light was at its best, to enjoy a beer and some nuts while photographing the starlings at a waterhole. I also videoed them, and later combined that footage with some taken earlier of the giraffes:

So while we didn't see the hoped-for White Rhino this was still a great outing and we thoroughly enjoyed the more than three hours we had spent driving around the reserve. The light was fading as we drove back to the lodge, ready for our dinner.

Evening at the lodge

Our stay at Fathala was on a bed and breakfast basis. I found it surprising that they didn't just make it half-board, since there is nowhere else to go to eat round here! So of course we took all our meals in the restaurant and found them very good on the whole, although the choice was understandably limited.

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Thai fish curry

Dinner was a set three course meal, with no choice of starter or dessert and just two options for mains. Although we didn’t have any specific needs ourselves, we were told that the chef will cook for these, e.g. vegetarian, with prior notice. We got chatting this evening to a young vegetarian girl (another Sarah!) who was staying here with her mother, and she told us that she was very impressed with the variety and quality of the dishes prepared for her. As indeed were we – the choice might have been limited but the meals were excellent and I loved this evening’s main course of a butterfish fillet in a Thai curry sauce.

Before and after dinner we enjoyed drinks in the Baobab Bar, an informal spot with views across the dried up river channel and, after dark, a fire pit. Then we walked back along the boardwalk, watching carefully for snakes, and settled down in our cosy tent, excited about what tomorrow would bring ...

Posted by ToonSarah 06:33 Archived in Senegal Tagged people animals birds boats wildlife hotel africa safari zebra giraffes gambia senegal fathala Comments (12)

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