Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Don't forget to drive on the left

We rushed for the Angolan border hoping to get as far as possible on our first day. We'd gathered as much information as we could about the Angolan roads on our way down through Africa. We'd planned our route to include as much tarmac as possible, by crossing at Luvo, head for Luanda via M'Penza-Congo and then carry on south down the coast before heading inland again at Benguela, down to Lubango then following the main road to the Santa Clara border.

We crossed the border, a little slow but no real problems eventually breaking free at 3pm. Relieved it was dry, it was a relatively smooth dirt track. We'd been warned it was like soap when wet. There were, however, storm clouds brewing in the distance. This was due to be our last evening in the wet season, and after about 45 minutes of driving it decided to see us out in style with a huge storm flooding the road. The surface became slippery as promised and we were sliding all over the place. We eventually reached M'Penza-Congo. The sun was setting so we thought we'd try to find a place to stay. The only hotel in town was full, so we left the town eventually finding a quarry just outside to bush camp. A quarry doesn't sound like the nicest place to sleep, but you're advised not to venture off the roads in Angola as there is still a high risk of landmines from the recent civil war. Quarries therefore provide one of the few options for bush camping, being well cleared.

The following morning, setting off at 6am, the wet season decided to throw its last punch with drizzle and fog, not ideal, but the road started off as a beautiful smooth dirt road winding through the hills of Northern Angola. Probably really lovely scenery but we couldn't see anything. As we raced towards the coast the fog lifted and the road deteriorated. Anyone who's driven on the wide variety of roads across Africa will know that the best ones are the beautiful tarmac, well maintained dirt roads aren't too far behind. A bad dirt road is a bit of a pain, throwing you and the car around, but bad tarmac in just brutal. Sharp edges and aggressive deep potholes violently jolting the car slowing everyone down to a crawl (not that there was anyone else). Most of Angola's roads were tarmacked before the civil war, but haven't been maintained for 30 years or so. Patches where the tarmac was totally destroyed weren't too bad, but other bits were terrible. The terrible tarmac changed to a pretty terrible sand road along the coast as we started heading south. By now vegetation was drying out, grass was turning yellow and the sky was turning the beautiful deep blue that the lack of moisture in the air allows. We were back in the dry season!

Shortly before Luanda the road turned back to tarmac, smooth and new, winding its way down the coast with stunning scenery, palm trees and blue seas racing past as we headed south. It was 4pm, we decided to try and shoot round the city to get to the southern side ready for an early start the next morning. The road we wanted to take round the city seemed to no longer exist, we turned back to try a second option. Tarmac quickly turned to sandy diversions round roadworks, and progress was slow, especially with heavy lorries crawling along. There were roadworks all round Luanda - they're hosting the African Cup of Nations next year, so there's frantic infrastructure improvement taking place (although I'm not sure how anyone is actually going to manage to get an Angolan visa to watch it). After several hours of battling we were on our road south out of the city. A policeman suddenly ran in front of the car blowing his whistle telling me to stop. Seeing as our Portuguese is really quite limited, all we could understand was that we had to pay a fine of US$50, with no idea why. "Nao compreendo" (I don't understand) repeated over and over again for 10 minutes or so seemed to do the job, and he eventually gave up and returned my driving licence. It was now dark, and with no sign of anywhere to set up camp. The first hotel we tried was full. The second might have a room soon for US$200. Slightly beyond our budget, so we tried the old overlander trick of asking if we could sleep in their car park in return for eating in their restaurant. After a bit of a discussion they agreed, so we put on our finest clothes, which really are pretty disgusting and sat down in their lovely beach front restaurant for a meal.

That night in the car was unbearably hot. Struggling to sleep we decided to set off at 4am, stopping after a while for porridge and tea at the side of the road. The road was good, again with fantastic scenery down the coast and beautiful Angolan villages. We realised we could possibly make it to Windhoek for the 23rd to meet Hannah's brother, so we pushed on all day. The good road carried on most of the way, eventually running out, turning into diversions winding through the forest round all the road building works that were going on. We searched for somewhere to camp, eventually pulling off up a forest track shortly before sunset. We were treated to amazing stars and our first cold night for several months (with the exception of Mount Cameroon).

We got up before dawn to make a push for the border, and were unexpectedly treated to some more good road. Disappointingly, it then turned into some of the worst road we'd had in Angola with badly potholed tarmac and dirt track with huge craters several metres wide. Shortly before the border we filled up everything we could with diesel at 25p/l, the cheapest we'd have on the trip.

After 34 hours of driving, with 2000km covered in 3.5 days we reached the Namibian border at about 3:30pm. We were helped out by a young man sorting out all the formalities on the Angolan side. I went to hand him US$5 for his assistance, quite generous I though for half an hour of work. He rejected it, saying "Just US$100 will do, that's all", I had to double check I'd heard correctly, yes, one hundred United States dollars was what he thought his help was worth. "How stupid do you think I am?" I believe was my response. "Ok, only $50 is ok". I got in the car to drive off and he suddenly decided the $5 was ok after all, having rejected the first offer he got nothing. It was nice being able to argue in English though!

The border itself was trouble free, and we were suddenly in a world where we could speak English and drive on the left (though changing sides of the road does make for a slightly confusing land border...!). We set off to find a camp site, yes, a dedicated camp site, our first since Morocco! This campsite even had some bog standard tourists in it, the first we'd seen for several months since Ghana. Pulling out woolly hats and ski jackets we braced ourselves for a Namibian winter evening, it was cold!

After our recent early starts we were up early the next morning - although as it turned out, somewhat earlier than we'd realised. We'd put our watches forward an hour on entering Namibia, blissfully unaware that the country has daylight saving time. We were quite happy in our world an hour away from everyone else's for a day or two until we realised - although it did explain the strange looks from the security guard when we got up at 4:30am - we thought it was early at 5:30am! Got a nice sunrise photo though.

Onwards to Windhoek, tarmac all the way and not a pothole in sight. We saw roadworks a couple of times where repairs were being made to the slightest imperfection in the road surface. The roads weren't designed to keep the driver awake however, with only a couple of corners every hour or so. We arrived at Thomas and Corinne's hotel to be met by an amazingly unfriendly woman, telling us that they were out around town. We headed off to Chameleon Backpackers. It was the most classy backpackers I've ever seen, the room we took was stunning and immaculate, staff exceptionally helpful and all reasonably priced as far as Windhoek goes (although still the most expensive place we've stayed since leaving Europe).

We returned to see if the others were back at the hotel, but it was just the exceptionally unfriendly woman still. We weren't allowed through the gate so decided to sit outside and wait. She advised us after a while that the area was very dangerous with serious crime problems and we shouldn't wait there. We knew the others would be back in 10 minutes or so and asked if we could wait inside for that time. "No, no visitors", ok so where should we wait. "I don't know, but not here, it's not safe". There were no bars or cafes around we could pop into so we decided to brave the street for another 10 minutes. The others eventually turned up, and after some pleading by them we were allowed through the gate for a few minutes while they sorted their stuff. We received warnings from several people about crime in Windhoek after we arrived, I'd imagined it to be a quiet and safe city, so this was really quite unnerving. We headed off to Joe's Beer House that night for a safari on a plate, a meal of of kudu, ostrich, crocodile, oryx, springbok and zebra. We were back in a land of good meat!

We'd been referring to Namibia as the promised land for quite a while by now, since leaving Ghana really. There would be good food, tourist facilities, hot running water, good supermarkets, we'd be back in the dry season, speaking English, good roads, driving on the left and fresh baguettes and croissants growing on trees (we can dream can't we?). Whenever someone was complaining about anything there would be a voice that would say "Namibia", as if everything would be perfect there. So far, apart from the bread trees it was pretty much holding true. We set off south fairly early the next morning after a trip round Shoprite, the big South African supermarket chain (Hannah and I really enjoyed it!). A camp site near the Taushab river in the Naukluft mountains was the destination. After a little while we took a right turn onto Namibian gravel, a new experience for Thomas and Corinne and it wasn't long before they were cursing the guide book for saying everything was perfectly doable in a two wheel drive vehicle and hiring a Toyota Yaris. It may be doable, but at half the speed and twice the discomfort. The lack of high clearance and travel on the suspension made for a slow journey.

We arrived at the campsite reception with its pool, bar and shop to be told that our pitch was 8.5km down the road, so off we went to find it. Clearly signed, well laid out and in the middle of nowhere with just 4 large pitches, all of them well separated by a bit of woodland to give some privacy. All that was polished off with clean, well maintained toilets and showers with hot running water. This was like no campsite we'd ever stayed at before, kind of like bush camping in luxury.

A couple of days walking was the plan, starting with the Olive trail. Lovely walk up through the mountains, descending along a dry river bed, a few tricky bits including hanging onto chains to traverse a near vertical wall - not sure what UK health and safety would have to say about that!

On to Sesriem the next day, climbing Elim Dune in the evening for sunset, a spectacular walk with stereotypical Namibian scenery all around including springboks bouncing in the distance. That night we had our first close encounters with Jackals wandering the campsite looking for food.

According to the Lonely Planet everyone wants to see Sossusvlei at sunrise, so we decided we probably should too. It was about an hours drive from the campsite so a 4:30am alarm was the order of the day going through the gates at 5:30am to join all the other cars to get there. The partly cloudy skies gave us a spectacular sunrise, but obscuring the sun after that meant we didn't get the flaming red dunes that we were supposed to, this combined with the unfortunate fact that we went to the wrong place meant we didn't get the experience we were meant to. Honestly, how often are there cloudy days in Sossusvlei in the dry season?!

Swakopmund was the next port of call. We had a very surreal drive on route into Walvis Bay. The sun was setting straight ahead, the thick blowing sand and the silhouetted cranes in the distance created a very eerie world. We did our chores in Swakopmund, including getting the hole in our exhaust sorted - they didn't have the right part, but nothing a grinder and a bit of welding wouldn't fix. A few other bits and bobs combined with some delicious sea food and we were on our way again.

We took the scenic route to Etosha via the Skeleton Coast national park. An exceptionally long days driving through a spectacularly barren landscape, visiting a few shipwrecks on route and Hannah and I managed to squeeze in another puncture. We barely saw another person all day, struggling even to find anyone to let us into the National Park at the gate. As the sun was setting the booked accommodation was no longer an option so we found a camp site, but the Yaris couldn't make the access road, despite what all the locals in the campsite were telling us. We all piled into Stanley leaving the Yaris at the side of the road.

We spent the next few days at the Etosha National Park. Our first Southern African park, and what a change from the ones down the west coast; not only was there actually wildlife, but also sufficient organisation to enable us to see it! As soon as we were through the gate there were zebra, springbok and giraffe at the sides of the road. The first evening we spent over three hours by the floodlit waterhole at the camp, there were twelve rhino at one stage, both black and white, elephants, giraffe, hyena, they were all making a show. On our final day in the park we went searching for a lion, sitting by a waterhole we'd heard they were known to visit. After an hour or so we were a little surprised to see a different big cat, a leopard creeping through the grass. Known for being incredibly shy, mainly nocturnal and rarely seen this was quite a surprise! Sadly, we still had to retire at the end of the day without our lion.

We left Etosha and went our separate ways leaving the other two to head south back to Windhoek for their flight, and to discover what pain Europcar would inflict on them for the state of the Yaris, while we went North East towards the Caprivi Strip. We spent the next few days moving very slowly, just driving an hour or so each day after our frantic whistle-stop tour of Namibia. We spent a day relaxing at Treesleeper community camp, named after the native people from the area. They're known for going hunting, then after making a kill they'd climb a tree with the kill and wait there to avoid the attentions of other predators, such a lion that might be interested. We paid to go on a "Bushwalk" to learn about the old hunter-gatherer lifestyle they used to lead, learning fascinating facts about hunting, medicine and making fire. This lifestyle has now been pretty much outlawed in the name of conservation.

We eventually reached the Okavango river, this whole area had been subject to serious flooding earlier in the year and was still recovering, our first campsite showing us how high the water had been. Went met Alistair and Bosse here, a couple of guys who'd rented a VW Polo in South Africa and were doing a small African tour in it. A little slow on some roads apparently but it was holding out ok.

Our next Okavango campsite, Samvura Camp, was a curious affair, we arrived to be greeted by three barking dogs and an exceptionally friendly lady. "Do you want to see a cape clawless otter?" she asked. Is it by the river? Stuffed? I thought. She wandered down to the house, "Come on Otty, come here". An otter wandered out of the house and came to say hello, a beautiful animal. Its mother had been caught in a snare and it was the only survivor from three pups. Attempts not to humanise it had failed, it was still effectively wild however. She said it would disappear into the river for up to six days at a time, but would always return eventually. Amusingly it would mark its territory by going to the toilet at the various entrances to the house. We were chatting at the bar when a large male goat trotted through and stood between Hannah and me. "Here's trouble", said the owner. He was going to be staff Christmas dinner five years earlier but they decided he was too small to kill. She gave us a stick to whack him with if he got annoying, he had a habit of butting people. We wandered down to have a look at the river, followed by dogs and a goat. "This is the worst campsite ever!" said Hannah, her dislike for animals overriding everything else that existed. We retreated to our camping spot, unfortunately joined by a horse for a while who decided to raid our table for food, but that was the last of our animals for the evening. A lovely peaceful campsite, lots of character and plenty of domesticated wildlife for those that like animals. We were a little surprised to have a bit of thunder and a few spots of rain that night, this was the dry season!

We carried on along the river heading for Ngepi camp, raved about in the guide book as the best backpackers in Namibia and the owner of the previous camp saying it was very nice we had high expectations. We arrived, there was no one else there, the staff were not particularly friendly and it was expensive. Still, we were here now. We went to look at our camping pitch, small, and we weren't allowed to drive on the pitch, so with a roof tent that would mean we had to camp on the road. We decided it wasn't for us and went to a place marked on the GPS instead, just a few kilometres down the river, Mahangu Lodge. Surprisingly it was packed, the first busy accommodation we'd stayed at in Africa! We were shown around - again the whole site had been underwater for two months in the floods, only drying out again in March. Amazingly it was all back up and running more or less normally, German run of course! We finally managed to spots our first hippos, the animal that had been eluding us the whole way through Africa. As the evening wore on various pods of hippos grunted away as they drifted past the camp. Again, we were surprised when a storm hit that evening, amazing sounds created from the thunder rolling across the plains. Even more amazing when it struck just metres from our tent!


Anonymous The Loudens said...

That leopard looks like a cheetah! Glad Stanley is still going strong. Also very glad to see you made it safely through the toughest parts of the west coast.

29 June 2009 at 09:36  
Blogger Will Calderwood said...

There have been several debates about this mysterous animal... Leopard won 3-1 however, the brown patches inside the black spots do confirm it's a leopard. (I claimed it was a cheetah originally!)

6 July 2009 at 21:30  
Anonymous The Loudens said...

You're right! It's a very skinny leopard though.

8 July 2009 at 13:02  

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