Tuesday, 29 April 2014

A Namibian Roadtrip

Long haul flights are terrible. Praying for the day they offer the Mr T. treatment, sat waiting for hours in a shopping centre full of gifts no-one wants, squeezed into a space too small for a battery chicken, a wheezing fat man to the right, a sea of crying babies to the left, a crisp rattling bodybuilder behind, scalding beef stew dripping down my arm, and Sly Stalone’s Escape Plan on the TV. It’s a good job that at the end of this 24 hour journey lay a country so amazingly different from the UK that it would justify twice the time to get to.

Namibia is a country of 2.2 million people scattered across a space 1/10th the size of Europe. To say it’s sparse would be an understatement. The savannah is endless, the road is endless, and so is the sky. When you step from the plane the sheer amount of blue is a strange sight for an Englishman. Clouds don’t form one large grey blanket, but hang motionless like perfectly round cotton wool zeppelins. At night, the stars, free from the competition of a bright orange fog, shine with unbelievable clarity. The phrase ‘wow, look at ze stars!’, although justified, I am truly sick of hearing.

In the space where people are not, there is still a lot to see. Every single animal from the Lion King and a changing scenery that takes in savannah, salt pans, sand dunes, pride rock, flooded rivers, and unbroken forests. Unfortunately, outside of the huge reserves and conservancies, the wildness has been tamed, with an equal amount of barbed wire for every inch of blue sky and a cow for every cloud. You have to wonder whether a country like Namibia can become more than just a home for Portugal-sized dust farms existing to feed the trickle of South African (and European) tourists. That said, the T-bone steak served at Tsumkwe Country Lodge was exceptional.

The trip began in Windhoek - the capital. A city typical of a developing country; the rich separated from the poor by 12 foot of fencing, razor wire, and 10,000 volts. The people looked friendly enough through the windscreen of our car, taxi, and Toyota Hilux. A pizza at Francesco’s and a bottle or two of Didier Drogba’s favourite beer, Windhoek Lager - a drink that I’d use as a thirst quencher most evenings - and we set off north for the first of many kilometres driving. Clearly, this isn’t a small country, and to see it requires a car, a numb backside, and a foot flat on the floor.

The first few days took us through Etosha National Park, a massive game reserve criss-crossed with easily passable roads, man-made waterholes, and well protected campsites that require the highest levels of etiquette to visit. This is animal watching for the serious, the silent, the terminally dull. Noise should be kept to a minimum in case one of Africa’s more timid creatures - the lion, the elephant, the rhinoceros - should hear your voice above the deafening sounds of birds and insects, turn and flee for the hills. In reality, every animal in Etosha cared more for flies than people. A rhino drank from the waterhole, giraffes wandered into the road, lions slept on the verge, and the jackals ate from our bin - please report all rabid jackals to reception, the sign read.

For 12 nights we slept above ground in pop-up tents on the roof of a 4x4. This is the way to see Africa. No air conditioning at night, but protection from mosquitoes, a fridge full of beer, and enough room for wood, water, gas, and foie gras - the essentials of camping life. From the top of the truck you can watch the animals on the ground below, safe and snug. I’m pretty sure neither rabid jackals nor large cats can climb - hippos definitely can’t.

Two nights and many animal sightings in the dust bowl of Etosha and the foot was flat to the floor once again for a monumental ride north to the lush, waterlogged forests of the Kavango and Zambezi regions. This area is a strange jutting leg of land that borders Angola, Zambia, Botswana, and just a stones throw from Zimbabwe. Rivers are everywhere, as are elephants, hippos, and (the possibly stereotypical) African villages of grass roofed mud huts hugging the road. Here people and cyclists, usually accompanied by a herd or two of goats and cows, wander the tarmac and gravel, stopping to wave, thumb lifts, or sell ornate animal carvings. 

In this unusually crowded part of Namibia, the wildlife and people live almost on top of each other. Each night, the laughter of hippos echoed around the forest camp of Ngepi. While we initially thought our dash for the car - we heard a particularly loud hippo-snort - was premature, the discovery of a giant one-tusked hippo mowing the lawn outside the tent two nights later proved this isn’t an impotent danger. It does make for some excitement though, and the river crossings, animal encounters, and the high standard of campsites in Kavango and Zambezi were luxuries that unfortunately weren’t repeated in the days that followed in the wilderness of Tsumkwe - a one horse town on the edge of Kalahari Desert - and the fly infested Roy’s Rest Camp.

Our final night on the road was spent three hours north of Windhoek in the rocky hills of Oppiklippe camp. Winter seemed to set-in quickly that week and although we burnt the last of the baobab tree dragged down from the Kalahari, it was still damn cold - something I did not expect in southern Africa. Oppiklippe showed just how strange economic and social inequality is in Namibia. £8 per person pays not just for the campsite pitch, but for two Namibians to spend the entire night watching the camp, having spent the day felling grass by hand. It also demonstrates how great a campsite can be that makes use of it’s surroundings. While the Ngepi camp weaved through a forest, the Oppiklippe camp hugs a pride rock, with toilets and showers in the base of a cliff, and a short climb to a natural, turtle filled fresh water pool at the top.

Returning to Windhoek for one final night, spending the last of our rand on taxis, overly sugary cocktails with views of the sparkling twilight city, and delicious game stew, it seemed all too soon that I was back at Tambo International Airport shaking hands again with a giant wicker mandela. It had been an incredible trip and no number of incompetent air stewards and fat snoring Germans encroaching on my economy armrest will dissuade me from travelling to Namibia again. The remoteness, the isolation, and the immense distances make this so distinct from London it’s untrue and I doubt I’ll ever hear the murmur of a hippo in the Thames or call of a hyena on Clapham Common anytime soon.

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