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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)

Our stay at Huab Lodge

Namibia Days Eight to Ten


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

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At Huab Lodge

We arrived at Huab Lodge quite hot and dusty after our morning visit to the Petrified Forest and a long drive on Namibia’s gravel roads. And straight away we knew we were somewhere special. This was one of our real ‘splurge’ choices on this trip and it was worth it. Here’s what I wrote for my Virtual Tourist review:

A visit here is more like visiting friends than staying in a hotel. Yes, it's expensive, but if you can afford it it's unmissable! The rooms are fantastic, with huge picture windows with a view of the Huab River (dry for most of the year). Even the showers come with a view (the rooms can't be overlooked by anyone apart possibly by a stray elephant or kudu). The lodge itself is beautifully designed, completely in keeping with the surrounding countryside. There's a natural hot spring, a small pool and a hide for bird-watching. Apart from the birds and the chance of seeing the elusive desert elephants (we weren't lucky) the wildlife isn't as great as elsewhere in Namibia, but don't let that put you off.

What really makes a stay here special are the people. Jan and Suzi will make you so welcome you won't want to leave! Jan is so knowledgeable about the local environment. He can imitate all the birds, identify animals at a glance, and will describe in detail how he and Suzi have restored this former farm-land and given it back to the wildlife. And in the evenings, everyone eats together by candlelight at the long table in the lodge. The food is fantastic and is washed down with a selection of fine wines, lovingly presented by Jan.

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Our room

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Chris on our terrace

On this first afternoon, we had a chat to Jan over a welcome cold drink and discussed what activities we were interested in. At his suggestion, after settling into our lovely bungalow, we headed out with him on a drive around the property. As we drove, he told us more about the land. When he and Suzi bought it in the early 1990s, it had been in use for commercial farming for some time. The farmers had fenced it in, driving away the desert elephants that habitually roam this region and turning them from their traditional migration routes. Other animals had been hunted (the Huab website says that, ‘Some of the previous land-owners shot every animal in sight to make biltong’) and what little water flows here had been diverted to the crops rather than the water-holes on which wildlife relies.

Dismayed by what was happening here Jan and Suzi bought three of the farms along the Huab River. They pulled down the fences and restored the waterholes, to encourage the animals to return. Their aim was to create a private nature reserve which would act as a buffer zone for the desert elephants in particular, and wild animals in general, between the conflicting farming interests. By gradually returning the land to its original condition through anti-erosion measures, and operating a strict hands-off and no-shooting policy, they brought about significant changes.

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Huab Lodge bungalows
(from their website, which I trust as I am recommending the place they will forgive!)

They started to take in paying guests – initially at a simple rest camp, then at the luxury lodge they built here. The proceeds paid for more improvements to the land and they set up the Huab Conservation Trust which financed the purchase of ten giraffes and eight ostriches. But unlike other reserves, Huab isn’t fenced, so these animals and others are free to roam where they want. Their intention in reintroducing game is not to fence it in and manage it for a selected few, but to assist nature in restocking itself.

And it’s working. The numbers of species such as kudu, oryx and mountain zebra are growing and the elephants now sometimes pass through, following their ancient paths, although we weren’t lucky enough to see them.

Jan also told us lots about the different trees we passed, including the bottle tree, Pachypodium lealii. These striking trees are distinguished by their thick bottle-shaped trunk, which is almost branchless until the top. The branches are few and covered with thorns up to a foot long. The flowers appear in the spring, when the tree is leafless, which is why they look so dramatic. Jan told us it was quite unusual to find a tree with as many blooms as this so early in the spring (i.e. mid July).

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Bottle tree in bloom

The Bottle tree is an endemic species of Namibia, growing in semi-desert areas and dry bush, especially Damaraland. Jan described how local people have traditionally used the latex as arrow poison for hunting. In contact with the eyes this latex can produce blindness.

I also liked the white bark of the Mountain Chestnut glowing in the late afternoon light.

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Mountain chestnut tree

Back at the lodge we freshened up and went to dinner in the large main building called the Lapa. It is a large open-sided space, partly built into a granite outcrop and covered by an enormous thatch roof which echoes the shape of a nearby mountain. The meal was served ‘family style’, with all the guests sitting at one long table with Jan and Suzi. Before the meal the menu was presented to us by the chef in her mother tongue, Damara, which intriguingly for us is one of the so-called click languages, helpfully followed by an English translation. Jan then introduced his recommended selection of wines for the evening – both these and our meals were included in our stay. The food was excellent and afterwards we went out on to the verandah with Jan while he pointed out some of the stars and planets, using his telescope for another look at Jupiter and his moons.

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Huab Lodge Lapa at night
(again from their website)

Over dinner we had discussed plans for tomorrow with Jan. The other guests were leaving, and new ones arriving, so we were the only ones accepting his suggestion that we join him on an early morning walk around the property – something he does every morning to check all is well. With that in mind we didn’t linger too long after dinner but headed back to our lovely bungalow to enjoy a comfortable night’s sleep.

Sunrise walk at Huab

We were up early as planned and were glad of the hot coffee served by the Lapa before leaving on our walk with Jan. We set out in the half-light of dawn. It was still pretty chilly so warm clothes were needed. Of course Jan knows this land intimately and as we walked was looking for any signs that all might not be well, but thankfully it was.

We followed the dried-up river-bed for part of the walk and Jan described to us the very different scene in the wet season when for a few short weeks the water (usually) flows through the farm. We also climbed a small outcrop for a wonderful view of the sunrise.

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Huab sunrise

Jan is an expert on the local birds, as on so much else, so was able to tell us which birds we could hear in the bush and even imitate them to encourage more calls and singing.

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Landscape near Huab

Heading back to the Lodge Jan took us up the hill behind the accommodation bungalows and showed us the extensive solar panel system and small generator that keep all the buildings supplied with light and hot water. We arrived back at the main building just as breakfast was being served, a wonderful spread: home-made breads, fruit, various meats, cereals etc – all served on the terrace under what is by then a beautifully warm sun.

We then decided to have a relaxing rest of the day, enjoying the lodge facilities and surroundings. We took books, cameras and binoculars to the hot spring a short walk away, where Jan and Suzi have built a stone shelter and added comfortable seating. We enjoyed a dip in the springs followed by a laid-back couple of hours, although we didn’t spot any passing wildlife.

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At the hot pool

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Helmeted guinea fowl

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Grey Go-away bird?

I did manage to get a decent photo of a Helmeted Guineafowl and a very poor one of what I think may be a Grey Go-away bird, based on a photo I took of one years later in Botswana: https://toonsarah.travellerspoint.com/239/ (unfortunately I wasn’t interested enough in birds back then to have noted its name anywhere).

A black eagle chick changes our plans

By dinner time the new guests had arrived – a woman a little older than us, her adult son, and her brother. As we all ate, they were naturally discussing with Jan their plans for the following day. We were due to leave after breakfast so had no such plans to make, but were interested listeners. The conversation turned to eagles and Jan mentioned that a pair of black eagles was nesting on the property. The nest was high on a cliff face, but he had climbed up a couple of times to check all was well. Last time he was there the egg looked almost ready to hatch and the new baby should have arrived by now. By the way, he did reassure us that unlike other eagles, black eagles won't desert a nest that has been visited, hence his regular trips to check up.

The woman asked if this was something they could see tomorrow and was told yes, if you’re able to make the climb. She assured Jan that she was, as was her son, while the brother said he would be happy to relax at the lodge while they went. I was sensing that Chris was a bit disappointed that we were leaving and wouldn’t be able to join them on this adventure, when suddenly Suzi asked if we’d like to stay until after lunch so that we could do so. With only a fairly short drive to our next destination of course we accepted the invitation. This is one example of why I said in my review that staying here was more like staying with friends as that’s just the sort of thing a friend might do – ‘Stay for lunch, don’t rush away, there’s something interesting happening this morning’. How many hotel owners do the same?

[Incidentally, I’ve read in recent reviews that although Jan and Suzi still own Huab Lodge they are no longer so actively involved in running it, and guests no longer get these personal touches, nor is the guiding quite so good now Jan has stepped back from that too.]

Jan suggested that, instead of waiting at the lodge as he had planned, the brother/uncle might like to come along for the ride and wait at the foot of the cliff, something I was also keen to do (no way could I climb a cliff face!) So we stayed below to watch and take photos of the climb, while Chris and the others started up the cliff.

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The climb to the eagles' nest

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Seen near the eagles' nest

The nest was perched on a rocky ledge high above the dried-up Huab River and wasn't easy to reach. Once up there they could no longer see it, but Jan had left me with a walkie-talkie and using that I could direct them from below so that they went up past the nest at a little distance and then approached quietly from above. The climbers’ efforts were repaid by some stunning views of the young chick, who was about seven weeks old and already the size of a hen. Obviously all the photos here were taken by Chris or others of the party!

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View from the eagles' nest
(taken by Chris)
~ you can see the lodge's jeep and perhaps just make out the figures of the uncle and me beside it?

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Jan & Chris by the eagles' nest

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Chris by the eagles' nest

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Baby eagle chick, 7 weeks old
(by Chris)

We learnt later that the chick continued to thrive and took to the skies a few months later, none the worse for the invasion of his privacy!

Meanwhile we headed back to the lodge for a lunch of spaghetti and a useful chat with Suzi who suggested a better route to Etosha, our next stop, than that proposed by our tour company. So with the route mapped out we loaded the car and somewhat reluctantly said goodbye to Huab and our wonderful hosts!

Posted by ToonSarah 11:01 Archived in Namibia Tagged landscapes sunsets_and_sunrises trees birds road_trip wildlife hotel africa namibia eagles Comments (16)

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)

With the Africat cheetahs

Namibia Days Twelve to Fourteen


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

After two nights in Etosha National Park we left to drive south to our final destination in Namibia, Okonjima Lodge. And we had left one of the best till last!

On the way we stopped in the town of Outjo to fill up with petrol and check emails and news at an internet café (this was before the days of smart phones and wifi everywhere). Of course we took a few photos too!

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Panorama shot (stitched) of Outjo

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In Outjo

Okonjima Lodge

We arrived at Okonjima around lunch time and were welcomed and shown to our room. This was in an individual round adobe hut, beautifully decorated and with part of the wall cut away and covered with a canvas flap so that we could ‘let the outside in’. Bird food was provided so that we could encourage them to visit our little ‘patio’ with its small bird bath– a family of ptarmigans visited us soon after our arrival!

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Door to our room, and seating area

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Our room

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Feeding the birds

The large main building or lapa is apparently shaped like a Camelthorn pod. It is open-sided and overlooks a lawn and beyond it a waterhole.

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Okonjima Lodge

But the star attraction for us on this first afternoon was the resident semi-wild lynx, Pixie. She was tame enough to hang around the lodge and tolerated people but we were warned not to try to pet her as she was pretty aggressive when upset.

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Chris photographing Pixie

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Pixie
(image on the right taken by Chris)

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Pixie

The Africat Foundation

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Tracking the cheetahs

Late afternoon it was time for us to head out on our first activity here, a visit to the Africat Foundation. This is a non-profit organisation, based at Okonjima. It is devoted to the conservation of cheetahs and leopards, rescuing animals that have been trapped by local farmers; providing humane housing, treatment and care for orphaned and injured animals; educating visitors and local people, especially farmers and school-children, about the animals they protect.

They provide a home and care for animals that cannot at present be released back into the wild, often orphaned cubs that are too young to cope on their own. These have either been captured without their mothers or their mothers have been killed. Others are animals that have been in captivity elsewhere and have become habituated to people or completely tame, making them unsuitable for release.

Most of the cheetahs and leopards that have suffered injuries are returned to the wild after recuperation, but in cases where the injuries have been too extensive, the cats have had to remain in captivity. The animals are housed in spacious enclosures of between five and four hundred acres in a natural, stress-free environment.

On our visit we went first to see the clinic and food preparation area, and then went into the cheetahs’ huge enclosure in jeeps which were delivering their food (very large and bloody joints of game!) I’d imagined that we’d be lucky to spot a few cheetahs in the distance but that wasn’t the case at all. The rangers can identify roughly whereabouts in the enclosure the cheetahs currently are, as they are all radio-collared. And once the jeeps are close to them there is no need to search further, we discovered, as they have learned to associate the noise of the vehicles with food and soon came running towards us.

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Some of the cheetahs

It was a fantastic experience to see how fast and how beautifully they run, and then to be able to watch them from such a close distance – at times only a metre from the jeep.

Back at the lodge we enjoyed an excellent dinner followed by a night-cap while sitting around the large (and necessary!) fire in the lounge area of the lapa.

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Getting warm!

Bush walk

We were up early on the following morning for another of Okonjima’s popular activities, a ‘Bushman walk’. An early morning snack consisting of tea or coffee and muffins was available at the lapa before we set out, wrapped up warmly against the morning chill. With our guide we followed an easy trail around the surrounding property. The guide stopped in various pre-arranged spots to describe an aspect of the San bushman’s life, such as fire-making, hunting, trapping etc. Although he wasn’t a bushman himself, he had lived with a San tribe in the north for about a year while studying and could tell us lots of interesting stories about his time there.

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Fire-lighting the bushman way
~ twisting a thin stick quickly in a hole in a larger stick to create sparks

The walk lasted about 90 minutes and we got back to the lodge in time for brunch. This was a substantial meal of maize porridge, muesli and other breakfast cereals, fruit, yoghurt, salami, cheeses and bread, followed by eggs, sausage or bacon. Brunch was served daily at Okonjima instead of a conventional lunch and we were certainly glad of it after our early start!

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Kudo on the law

We spent much of the day relaxing at the lodge, making the most of what was our last full day in Namibia. Between a dip in the pool, a walk around the grounds, taking more photos of Pixie and enjoying sitting outside our bungalow watching for birds, we were kept very happily occupied.

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The waterhole during the afternoon and at sunset

Local nightlife

After dinner everyone wrapped up warmly for a short drive to a hide that the lodge has set up for visitors to view two rather special local animals. On arrival we were reminded to keep very quiet as we all filed into the space. Torches were provided so that we could see where we were going. Everyone was seated on a long bench, and when we were all in place our torches are switched off and the flaps covering the window slots were lifted. The guides put raw meat in a clearing just in front of us, and we waited …

The porcupines were first to arrive – three or four of them came snuffling out of the surrounding trees and nosed around the meat for a while. We all took photos and the flashes didn’t seem to bother them at all – the guide explained that they probably think it’s lightening. But you will need a good flash to get a photo - mine were a little disappointing so I borrowed an image from the lodge website, with permission.

After a while the porcupines left, just as the honey badgers arrived. Just one at first, then a couple more. These aren’t anything like the shy, cuddly British badger, being notorious for their strength, ferocity and toughness. In fact I read a description of them as the fiercest animals, for their size, in the whole of Africa. Perhaps that’s why the porcupines left!

Again, my photos weren’t successful, so here is a copyright free image found online.

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Honey badger

After an hour or so watching and enjoying, it was time to go back to the lodge to get warm by the roaring fire, and a welcome warming drink. A great last evening in Namibia.

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In the bar

Time to go home

The next morning, after another good brunch, we packed up the car for the fairly short drive back to Windhoek. We had some time to spare so drove into the centre for a look around. This isn’t the daunting adventure the drive into some capitals would be as Windhoek is relatively small and quiet. We had already learned, while in Swakopmund, the best way to park in a town centre in Namibia. Local people, usually young men, hover by the kerb ready to approach you as soon as you step out of the car, in order to offer to look after it. If you accept, you’re charged a small fee and a slip of paper is tucked under the wiper to indicate that ‘this car is being watched, so meddle with it at your peril’. At times three or four people were competing for our custom in this way.

We didn’t find out what would happen to your car, if anything, if you refused these offers as we never did. We were conscious that:
a) this fee may be his main or only source of income
b) it was still a lot cheaper than parking in most cities around the world
c) it was a lot less hassle than a damaged or stolen hire car would have been!

We didn’t have much time for sightseeing, so we just strolled around a bit and went into a couple of shops. If I remember rightly, we bought some coffee to take home as gifts (I may be wrong about that detail – I didn’t note it at the time, and it was almost sixteen years ago!)

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Shop sign on a wall in Windhoek

All too soon it was time to drive to the airport, forty kilometres east of the city centre, and hand in our hire car. To our relief nothing was said about the few extra scratches it had acquired during the past fortnight. I guess minor scratches are to be expected driving on those gravel roads and only more significant damage is considered an issue.

We flew home to London via Johannesburg as on our outward journey. It was an overnight flight which is always tiring, but we were grateful for two things – firstly, that there is no jet lag travelling south to north like that, and secondly that it was July so we weren’t transitioning from a hot climate to a cold one!

Writing this sixteen years later I still look back on this as one of our best trips ever, and would love to return to Namibia … one day perhaps.

Posted by ToonSarah 09:00 Archived in Namibia Tagged animals night road_trip wildlife hotel flight africa namibia kalahari customs big_cats Comments (10)

The adventure begins!

Ecuador day ten


View Ecuador & Galapagos 2012 on ToonSarah's travel map.

A world apart

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The Angelito seen from the beach of Sombrero Chino

For many years I wanted to visit the Galápagos: to walk on these remote islands where unique species thrive, where Darwin first developed the ideas that would change our understanding of nature, and where animals have never learned to fear humankind. And in 2012 I realised my dream. And fortunately, it more than lived up to my expectations!

A week of discovery, with each day surprising us with something new, something special. One day, a giant manta ray languidly turning in the waves beneath the cliffs where we stood. Another, an albatross chick, already enormous, sitting watching us as we sat and watched him. On one memorable morning, we were spellbound by a group of young Galápagos hawks who clustered around a new-born sea lion pup and his mother, one of them eventually swooping in to grab the placenta which all then eagerly devoured. And on another, we swam and snorkelled with a group of lively sea lions, patrolled by the watchful alpha male who tolerated our intrusion but disdained to join the fun.

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Galápagos wildlife

We spent our week travelling the islands on board the Angelito, one of the older established boats available for tourist cruises, and one of the best value. Its itineraries and guiding are recognised as first class, but the boat itself is less than luxurious, though it has all that you need for a wonderful week at sea. No fancy cabins or leisure facilities, but a friendly and super-helpful crew, great meals conjured up in a tiny galley, a knowledgeable guide (Fabian) considerate of everyone’s needs, and enough space in which to chill and appreciate your surroundings between island visits. What more could we have asked?

We were also fortunate to find ourselves travelling with a super group of fellow explorers. Drawn from six nationalities, and spanning several decades in age, everyone nevertheless got on incredibly well, helped by a shared passion for what we were seeing and a respect for each other’s right to enjoy (and photograph!) it as much as we were.

In this and the following entries I want to share these experiences of our trip of a lifetime with you. So let’s go!

Galápagos day one

After our overnight stay at the Grand Hotel in Guayaquil we were up early (very excited!) We had breakfast in the same coffee shop where we’d eaten dinner – this was a much better meal than that had been, with a selection of hot and cold items served buffet style along with fresh fruit, a wide selection of rolls and pastries, and decent coffee.

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At the airport

After breakfast we were picked up for our transfer to Guayaquil’s modern airport, José Joaquín de Olmedo International Airport. The airport is only four miles from the city centre and as it was a Sunday traffic was light and we were there very quickly. The airport terminal is very new (at the time it was the newest in the country, since superseded by Quito’s new airport). It was opened in 2006 and the old terminal turned into a convention centre.

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Coming in to land

This is the nearest airport to the Galápagos and many flights from Quito stop here to pick up passengers. We found it to be relatively quiet and well-organised for the additional complications of a Galápagos flight – buying our INGALA transit control cards (INGALA is the agency that regulates travel to the islands), and having our luggage inspected to meet quarantine regulations. Both these operations went smoothly and we had time for a coffee in the bright and comfortable departures area (with good free wifi) before boarding our plane. Only 15 hours after arriving in Guayaquil, we were leaving already.

The flight lasted 1 hour 45 minutes, but because the Galápagos Islands are an hour behind mainland Ecuador, we arrived well before lunch-time. Our first views of the islands, from the air, were enough to raise the excitement levels further. Our dream holiday was about to begin!

But first, there were some more formalities to get through. Everyone visiting the Galápagos has to pay a $100 national park fee, and as this can’t be paid in advance, it must be done on arrival at the airport and in cash. I was pleased that in addition to the attractive souvenir ticket I also got my passport stamped.

Baggage claim consisted of all luggage being piled up in a hall to one side of the arrivals area, and once we’d retrieved ours we were able to exit to the main part of the airport where Fabian our guide was waiting for us all to escort us to the Angelito.

Transfer to the boat

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Crossing from the jetty to the Angelito

The airport at Baltra is just a five minute drive away from the small port where the cruise boats moor, and the journey is undertaken on a fleet of elderly buses whose comings and goings are controlled by the military who own the airport. Fabian directed us to the right bus, on arrival at the port, organised the transfer to the Angelito. Even the smaller boats, judging by our experience, aren’t able to moor directly at the dock, so the 16 of us crossed to the boat in one of its two small dinghies, in two groups, while the other was used for our luggage.

We were very soon all on board and looking round eagerly at our home for the next week – and at each other, our travelling companions. It would have been good to have known already at that point that we would quickly become a tight-knit group and would thoroughly enjoy each other’s company as well as the trip itself.

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Our group

The Angelito

Since our trip in 2012 the Angelito has been modernised, so our experiences of it won’t be quite the same as anyone travelling on it now, but I doubt they could be better! We were very happy indeed with our choice of this boat for our Galápagos cruise, as were all the others in our group it seemed. She isn’t a luxury vessel, but she is solidly built (entirely from wood), owned (and crewed) by locals, and provides a friendly, comfortable setting that we believed helped our group to gel and absolutely fitted the unique atmosphere of this special part of the world.

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Moored off North Seymour

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Some of the crew

The Angelito accommodates 16 passengers in 8 cabins, all of which (at that time) had bunk beds. This was one factor keeping the price of her cruises lower than it might otherwise be. But what matters most on a Galápagos cruise is not the comfort of the vessel (imho) but the quality of the guiding and the interest-level of the itinerary. The Angelito offered guides qualified to the top level (level three) and, with a great little engine, the capacity to travel to some of the further flung islands (such as, in our case, Genovesa).

Almost as important, the service we received on board was of a similarly high standard, with plenty of tasty food served by a super-friendly chef and a helpful and ever-smiling crew. The shared public areas were more than adequate for the sixteen of us, with a lounge space inside and seating on a covered aft deck and open foredeck. There was a bar with an honesty system for drinks, including a ready supply of beer, and a small reference library of wildlife guides and other reading material.

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Bunk beds

In November 2012 when we stayed on her, the Angelito’s eight cabins were split between four on the lower deck and four on the upper, with the lounge, dining area, bar and galley on the main deck in between. Cabins couldn’t be pre-booked but were allocated on arrival on board. We were given one on the lower deck, #2. In some ways, I was disappointed not to have the large window of an upper deck cabin (we had only two small portholes) but that was the only disadvantage, and on the plus side, these lower cabins are considered to be more stable during a heavy swell. Chris quickly claimed the upper bunk, which I was glad to agree to. We found we had just enough storage space for our belongings, and soon settled into the space. The cabin was compact but of course we didn’t spend a lot of time in here, other than when sleeping, and the public areas were generous enough that I could always find somewhere to sit on the rare occasions when on board and not eating or socialising. My favourite spot to relax and catch up with my diary or read became the aft deck, where the loungers were shaded and the view of frigate birds and others following our wake always enticing.

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On deck

Although on the basic side, all cabins had a small bathroom with toilet, washbasin and shower, and hot water was plentiful at all times. Sheets were changed once during our stay, and towels were plentiful, both in the cabins and when needed after snorkelling or swimming. This was no luxury cruise, but for a friendly welcome, top-notch guiding and a genuine Galápagos experience, it’s hard to think that we could have done any better than the Angelito.

Because we spent a whole week on the boat and I don’t want to keep repeating myself in these entries, I’ll say a bit more here about life on board.

Meals on the Angelito

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Chef and assistant

To say that meals on the Angelito are generous is an understatement! And not just meals – every time we returned on board after an island visit or a snorkelling session, a treat would be waiting for us. And with two visits each day, and snorkelling on most days, that’s a lot of treats! All meals are included in the cost of the cruise, apart from drinks other than water, tea and coffee, and also apart from those treats and the delicious fruit juices at breakfast time. So with everything already paid for, it would be a shame not to eat it, wouldn’t it?!

A typical day’s eating and drinking would be something like this:

Breakfast, usually served early (somewhere between 6.00 and 7.00, depending on the plans for the day) -
Fruit juice (as fresh and wonderful as everywhere in Ecuador), fresh fruit, bread or toast, jams, cheese and ham, and some sort of eggs – one day scrambled, another a tortilla, and so on. Some days there were extras – one morning we had pancakes with maple syrup, for instance, and another there were little sausages.

After our first landing (usually about 10.30), as we climbed back on board –
Snack, such as more fruit juice and mini empanadas, or biscuits
If we snorkelled after this, we would be greeted on our return with a hot drink – chocolate or a herbal tea.

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Ceviche

Lunch, usually around midday –
Soup, meat or fish with rice, sometimes potato too, and vegetables, and a platter of fresh fruit.

After the afternoon landing, another snack, similar to the morning but never the same. One day we had mini hot-dogs, on another there were slices of excellent pizza.

Dinner, which might be served before or after the evening briefing depending on where and when we were sailing –
Meat or fish with rice, sometimes potato, vegetables and salad, and a dessert such as a mousse or crème caramel. On two special occasions, the dessert was a celebration cake – once for Brian’s birthday which fell on the Thursday of the cruise, and on the final night, when dinner was a buffet with a spectacular fish dish as its centre-piece.

With all this to eat, is it any surprise that despite all the walking and swimming, I put on weight during the week?!

Our itinerary

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Our guide, Fabian

Regulations prohibit any boat from revisiting any island within a fortnight, so all the boats cruising the Galápagos offer two different one-week itineraries, which they alternate. The plus side of this is that anyone with the time, money and enthusiasm who wants to, can book both and have a two week cruise! For the rest of us, short on the first two of these ingredients, there is the difficulty of choosing which to do. Every boat’s schedule is different, although of course with only so many islands to include, there is plenty of overlap.

I studied the options for ages, trying to make up my mind! I’d identified a number of islands I’d particularly like to see, but no boat (in our price range at least) covered all of them in a single week. But the Angelito had been strongly recommended, and its itinerary A covered all but one of my priority islands (Genovesa for the birds, Bartolomé for the views, Española for the albatrosses – only Fernandina was missing). So that was our final choice, and a great one too! I have read that like us, everyone agonises over their choice of itinerary, and everyone has a wonderful time regardless of where they decide to go – there are NO bad itineraries when it comes to Galápagos cruises!

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Our captain

Anyway, the A itinerary of the Angelito which we experienced was (in 2012):

1. Sunday: Baltra – North Seymour

2. Monday: Sombrero Chino – Bartolomé

3. Tuesday: Genovesa: Darwin Bay and Prince Phillips Steps

4. Wednesday: Santiago (Puerto Egas) – Rabida

5. Thursday: Santa Cruz: Darwin Station, Puerto Ayora and Highlands

6. Friday: Española: Playa Gardner and Punta Suarez

7. Saturday: Santa Fe – South Plaza

8. Sunday: Black Turtle Cove (Santa Cruz) – Baltra

Of all the islands we visited, my favourites proved to be two of those I had especially aimed to see (Genovesa and Española) and one that I had not (Santiago), although it was Santa Fe that gave me two of my most memorable experiences – snorkelling with sea lions, and a close encounter with Galápagos hawks.

My following entries will cover all the wonderful places we went and sights we saw, but again to avoid too much repetition, I will start with one describing some of the wildlife we encountered on the islands …

Posted by ToonSarah 00:55 Archived in Ecuador Tagged animals islands boat wildlife cruise galapagos ecuador Comments (10)

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