The Caprivi Strip, Namibia

Hippos in the Okavango River,
Nunda River Lodge,
Caprivi Strip, Namibia

The Caprivi Strip is a narrow band of land in the north east of Namibia stretching more than 400 km east from the north east corner of the main body of the country. At its western end it is only around 40km wide with the Okavango River and Angola as its northern border and the north west corner of Botswana as its southen border. From there it narrows to less than 30km wide and then expands in the centre to follow the course of the Kwando and Linyanti Rivers before tapering out where the Linyanti flows into the Zambezi River. As well as having these large rivers flowing along the edge of or through the Strip this area enjoys a higher rainfall than the rest of Namibia and the vegetation and country is markedly different to the predominantly dry country we have encountered everywhere else in Namibia.

We’re planning on spending the last two weeks of our time in Namibia on the banks of these permanent rivers in the Caprivi Strip but first we have to make a detour. While we were in Etosha our trailer fridge/freezer stopped working. Luckily the freezer was nearly empty and our fruit and vegetables were also low so we managed to keep our food in the far smaller fridge in the Landcruiser but it needs fixing before we leave Namibia. The nearest authorised repair place is in Otjiwarongo which is on the road south from Etosha toward Windhoek. Jared and Jen have a bigger detour to make as they need to travel all the way to Windhoek to get some warranty repairs made to their trailer. We both have time to fill before our appointments so we set out from Etosha at a leisurely pace planning to find a place to stay near Otjiwarongo either tonight or tomorrow.

By mid afternoon we have visited Tsumeb and reached Otavi without finding a suitable camp for the night and we call into the supermarket to buy a few supplies. As we are leaving, Boet, who drove with us up to Marienfluss, greets us. He and his wife Martie live just a few minutes away and he invites us to visit which we do. Afrikaans people are extremely hospitable and before we know it we are camping on their front lawn for the night and Martie is cooking a delicious dinner for us all. We swap stories about our travels since we last saw them and about other travels they have done in southern Africa and have a very enjoyable evening followed by a delicious cooked breakfast, and lots of cups of coffee, in the morning.

Thoroughly fortified we continue south to Otjiwarongo. There’s a camp site in town but it is far from appealing so we decide to try Weavers Rock camp about 30km south of town. Its set up on a hillside with great views, has a pool and a bar and restaurant, good WiFi, and very friendly staff so its easy to decide to stop here. We plan to stay two nights as the repairs are to be completed tomorrow (which is also Paul’s birthday) and Jared and Jen will stay a third night.

Weavers Rock,
Namibia

In town the next day the repairs are quickly carried out (turns out it was a broken pipe which released all the gas) so we stock up at the supermarket and butchers, and we find two good cafes for our breakfast and lunch. Back at camp we prepare a birthday dinner; Jen makes a delicious eggplant dip for starters and a large pork belly is spiced and slowly cooked on the braai to be accompanied by roast vegetables and our last bottle of good Franschoek wine from the Cape Winelands.

We’ve enjoyed this camp so much that even before dinner Paul and I have decided to extend our stay for an extra couple of nights. Jared and Jen still need to leave as planned so we farewell them and arrange to meet later. After Windhoek they are heading for Khaudum National Park and will be travelling through it on their way to the Caprivi Strip. We have decided not to visit it partly because it is very sandy and we don’t want to tow the trailer through the park and also because we want some rest and relaxation time before we leave Namibia. Paul has loads of photos he wants to work on and I’m way behind on my writing. It’s wise to travel through Khaudum with at least two vehicles so Jared and Jen are meeting up and travelling with Roger and Jenny, the couple we met on our last night in Etosha.

After our four nights at Weavers Rock we start our journey north toward Caprivi. We travel back through Otjiwarongo and Otavi and stop in Tsumeb to have new tyres fitted and then pass through Grootfontein. It’s late afternoon by now but we have a long way to go before we reach the area we want to stay in and we would like to make it there tomorrow so we drive until after dark and stop at a roadside rest area before making an early start and continuing in the morning.

Our early start pays off as, even with a stop in Rundu, we reach the Okavango River and find a lovely camp near the tiny settlement of Divundu. The Nunda River Lodge offers chalets, safari tents and camp sites as well as a great deck over the river, bar and restaurant, swimming pool and ablution blocks which offer extremely hot water supplied by a donkey which is lit each morning and late afternoon and boast a small, well-tended garden in the centre between the toilets and showers. There are only nine camp sites and we aren’t lucky enough to get one right on the river for our first night but they juggle the bookings and we get a fabulous and large river-side site for the remaining nights.

We end up staying a week and a half and enjoy the luxury of a well run camp ground combined with our location right at the end of the camp sites so we can sit on the edge of the river and feel like we are out in the bush on our own. Numerous hippos spend their days nearby and while they move to feed at night they don’t go too far as we can hear them at random times throughout the night as well as all through the day. There are crocs in the river as well but the only ones we see are a couple of youngsters, less than two metres long on the far bank. One day we watch in delight as a herd of elephants stir up the dust as they wander along the river bank opposite our camp. We haven’t crossed the Okavango here so technically we’re on the western bank but the river winds so much we are facing west and can enjoy fabulous sunsets over the water.

As well as the animal life we love the birds around us. Majestic African Fish Eagles call from the tops of nearby trees. Their call seems to symbolise the sound of Africa to me. Pied Kingfishers hover above the river and dive into the water to find their catch. Tiny bee-eaters sit on the branches watching and their dive is for insects flying below them. A White-browed Robin-Chat becomes so accustomed to our presence that as I am peeling apples for stewing it briefly lands in the handle of the pot before the pot tilts and he flies off. Other birds hover and hop around with starlings flashing bright blue.

We drive into Divundu a couple of times. It boasts two supermarkets as well as smaller shops and businesses and of course several shebeens. Fresh produce is scarce but we are fairly well stocked and enjoy what we find to supplement our diet. Another outing is down river to the Mahango National Park. We set out before breakfast and take a slow drive along the river road to a picnic spot. There’s nothing in particular here except a shady clearing above the water and we happily sit here for several hours having breakfast and coffee then reading and relaxing as we listen to the sound of hippos and birds. It’s not a big park and game doesn’t seem abundant but when we think about what we’ve seen it amounts to an impressive tally. The animals include Kudu, Impala, Zebra, Lechwe, Elephant, Buffalo, Warthog, Hippo, Vervet monkeys, Baboons, Ostrich and Sable Antelope. Birds are also plentiful including the pretty Blue Waxbill, Lilac Breasted Roller and Little Bee Eater, the brilliant Crimson Breasted Shrike, the unusual Violet Wood Hoopoe, the ugly Maribou Stork, and the regal Saddle-billed Stork. Paul returns the next day to visit the waterhole in the late afternoon and gets some close up views of elephants and an ostrich drinking, which is quite unusual.

It is just as well we have such a large site as the camp is almost full when Jared and Jen and Roger and Jenny arrive after their Khaudum trip but they are all able to join us on our waterside site. They loved Khaudum with its huge herds of elephants and very remote bushland. They tell us that the trip out of the park was very sandy, and they had to dig themselves out on two occasions. We would certainly have struggled with our trailer and while we may have missed a great park we have really enjoyed our time here beside the Okavango River. Roger and Jenny stay two nights then head south into Botswana. After Botswana they are planning to travel into Zambia so we may cross paths again there. We stay an extra couple of nights so we’ve had a good week and a half of relaxation to ready us for more adventures. Jared and Jen are going to spend another two days on maintenance and paperwork before they also head south into Botswana. We’ve been travelling with them most of the time since we met in Luderitz which was more than two months ago. Our plans for the rest of this year differ but hopefully we’ll catch up somewhere in East Africa next year. They have been great company.

We drive further east through the Caprivi Strip until we cross the next major river, the Kwando. About 30km south along the river we find another wonderful camp along the river bank at Malyo Wilderness Camp. This camp is far less structured but has a different charm. There are a few safari tents but most of the area is grassed with scattered trees providing plenty of shade but also good spots to set up our solar panels. There is no power or potable water here but we are self sufficient and happy with the simple camp. There are very few other campers and we quickly decide we will spend three nights here. Tall reeds cover the opposite bank and birds hop in and out of its shelter. Pied kingfishers are plentiful as are the beeeaters. Both are lovely to watch as they hunt for their food … diving for fish in the water or snatching insects out of the air.

There are two small sections of national park near here and we spend one of our days exploring. We drive through Mudumu Game Reserve and are not hopeful of seeing much game but grazing along the side of the road are Zebras, Warthogs and Impala. A little later Paul spots an elephant approaching the road. He’s very shy and as soon as he sees us stop the car he retreats into the bush. We reverse to give him room and after a pause to gain his courage he approaches the road. Once again as soon as he spots us he turns back into the bushes so we reverse even further to give him more room and finally we are far enough away for him to feel confident he has enough space. He completes his crossing and disappears into the bush on the other side.

Further south we take a side road toward Nkasa Lupala Nature Reserve. This is the bottom section of the Caprivi Strip and the Linyanti Swamp can be very muddy and difficult to travel in during the wet season. It has dried out enough now to allow us to travel through part of the park but there are still large sections which are impassable. We spend several hours driving slowly along rough, ‘two spoor’ tracks but apart from about twenty or thirty vultures circling or perching in trees not far from the road we see very little game. Apart from warthogs that is, they are so numerous we rechristen the park Warthog Park. Finally we are rewarded with some elephants, hippos and an African Fish Eagle perched in a tree just above the track. We may not have seen lots of game but it has been a lovely day and we return to camp ready to move on the next day.

Our final camp is just outside Katima Mulilo on the banks of Zambezi River. This camp is far more manicured than the last two with paved campsites and well maintained lawns and gardens. Once again we are able to set up right on the bank of the river and it is a very pleasant place to spend our last two nights in Namibia. It is three months since we arrived in this wonderful country and we have enjoyed every bit of it. It is a country with great variety; in its geology, climate, vegetation and people. We have met so many friendly people, both locals and fellow travellers, and seen plenty of wonderful animals and birds. From here we head across the border to Zambia and no doubt more great adventures.

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Etosha National Park, Namibia

Elephant, Halali, Etosha NP

Etosha is one of Namibia’s major tourist destinations and a great place to see lots of wildlife. The park is more than 20,000 square kilometres with the huge Etosha salt pan as its heart. Bushveld, waterholes and open plains surround it. The opportunity to see Black rhinos is a major draw card but there are lots of other animals to see here as well. It’s a busy place and it is best to pre-book accommodation but by the time we work out when we were likely to arrive it is too late to book, so we’ll just have to take our chances. We reach the western gate late in the afternoon after travelling down from the Kunene River and spend the night in a camp across the road from the entrance.

We make a very early start in the morning and it is just as well as the first two camping areas we reach have no vacancies and, allowing time for stopping at waterholes, it is late afternoon by the time we reach Halali Rest Camp. All of the rest camps have a variety of accommodation as well as camping, all have a waterhole you can visit from inside the rest camp allowing you to view wildlife at any time of day or night. The main three rest camps also have swimming pools, restaurants and a shop. We would like to have had a couple of nights at Oaukeujo Camp as its waterhole is the best place to see the rhino and lots of other animals frequent it as well but it is also the most popular camp and it is fully booked.

Halali has a huge camping area and we have no problems getting a site here and we happily stay for four nights. The waterhole here is just a short walk from our camp and makes a great spot to sit with an early morning cup of tea or coffee, a late afternoon drink and nibbles, and an evening viewing when the floodlights illuminate the animals venturing in for a drink. In between we drive along the network of tracks through the bush land and along the edge of the pan and visit the waterholes either for a short period, if it is dry or there are no animals around, or for longer if there is lots of activity.

Zebra are numerous as are black faced Impala and Springbok. It’s mating season for the Impala and males spar to claim their right to be the alpha male and to chase the females, generally unsuccessfully as far as we can see. Other antelope we see include Kudu, Hartebeest, Oryx and Wildebeest. Giraffe appear behind the trees or cross the open land in their swaying gait. There are lots of elephants in the park and we see a good sized herd on our way in and also at Halali waterhole. Ostriches appear to float above the mirage on the salt pan and bob through the grassland. A couple of lionesses snooze in the long grass near a waterhole and make all the other animals nervous. We see rhino at a couple of waterholes including Halali, they look especially solid under the night light but when a family of elephants are there first they make the rhino look much smaller and he circles around warily with a couple of the female elephants watching him carefully until they allow him in to drink. Warthogs scamper through the grass with tails held high looking ridiculous as usual, and somehow appealing at the same time. If they are around there will be leopard but we’re not lucky enough to see them, they are very shy and hard to spot.

We see lots of birds as well. The Lilac Breasted Roller displays its beautiful colours perched on a branch looking for insects but when it flies a whole new set of colours is on show. Tall Secretary Birds stalk through the grass along with Bustards and Korhaans. Kingfishers and Bee-Eaters swoop and birds of prey soar above us.

After our four nights at Halali it’s time to head out the eastern gate. There’s another rest camp here, Namutomi, but we’ve been told it’s full. We call into the reception there on the off chance and talk our way into a site for the night. It’s a lot smaller and the grass and trees are very welcome. There is an old German Fort here and it’s worth a look even though it isn’t being well used at present and the accommodation, restaurant and bar which used to be in the fort are closed and dilapidated. It seems you can no longer sleep in the old soldiers quarters as you used to be able to do. The waterhole is being revamped and the only ‘cat’ we see here is the mechanical kind which is enlarging the hole. Instead of spending sunset at the waterhole we return to our pleasant campsite. Neighbouring campers, Roger and Jenny, join us and our last night in the park is spent sitting around our campfire chatting. This has certainly been a great place to visit.

North West Namibia 2: Kaokoland

Marienfluss Valley,
NW Namibia

After we leave Sesfontein the country side doesn’t change but we have left behind the land of the Damara people and we are now in Kaokoland, the land of the Herero people. We soon reach the dusty settlement of Purros which boasts one general store and some signs offering to sell fuel by ringing a cell number. Presumably it is transported here in drums but we’re not keen to test the quality so we’re glad we filled the tanks at Sesfontein and have a couple of jerry cans each as a back up because we won’t see a service station for quite a while.

From Purros the main track north is reportedly very rough and we are advised to travel up or along side the Hoarusib River then cut across to the Khumib River and follow the track to Orupembe. Paul and Jared decide the river bed of the Hoarusib is the more fun option although Jen and I wonder if the river side track might have been a tad easier. We make it through OK after criss-crossing through sand and mud, making several detours when the track runs out or gets too muddy and going up and down steep exits and entrances. Obviously one of the climbs up a sand wall from the river bed was too sharp for our camper trailer as the back hits harder than it should have and we end up with bent sheet metal and a broken tap on our water tank and, as a result we lose much of our water. Luckily we had arranged to have the tanks in the trailer separated before we left Johannesburg so we still have some of that water left plus 55 litres in the land cruiser. It is slow going and we make an overnight camp in the river bed before completing this section of our trip.

In the morning the Hoarusib takes a turn and enters a gorge, definitely not a place to take the trailers, and we follow a track across country and over a water-shed before descending to the Khumib River. It’s a lovely drive with lots of great views especially looking back down towards the Hoarusib just before we drive over a saddle. We had been warned there were sections of very sharp rocks and Jared gets caught in one which tears the side wall of a trailer tyre. The track is very narrow at this spot but fortunately nobody is going the other way while Jared is changing the tyre, in fact we’ve seen very few other vehicles since we left Purros.

When we reach the Khumib River the track meanders along the edge of the sandy river bed occasionally crossing and as the afternoon progresses we decide to stop in the next suitable shaded spot. Instead the track moves away from the river bed and climbs over some hills alongside the river. We stop at a lookout and the view is fabulous. There’s no shade and it’s blowing a gale but we decide to stay anyway, the photographic opportunities are too good to miss. Luckily the wind eases before we need to light our fire and Paul enjoys taking photos at sunset and sunrise as well a quick stint during the night as the moon is setting.

We reach Ourepembe without further mishap and drive into the village to see what’s there, maybe Jared can get his tyre fixed. We stop at Orupembe Store No. 1 to ask and are told no luck with the tyre as the only other building, apart from huts, is the police station. We drive away wondering why the store was numbered.

Orupembe Shop 1,
NW Namibia

Not far up the track we enter the Otjiha plains which are encircled by hills. It’s good grazing country with lots of cattle and goats as well as some Ostrich and buck. At the north of the plains are the villages of Onjuva and Otmenje. Marble Community Camp is at the northern end of Otmenje and is our destination for the night. What another great camp! We don’t have private ablutions this time but everything is extremely well built while it retains a rustic design and fittings. Once again our one night stay turns into two. On the hill above us are three houses available for rent. Their design and construction along with their fitout are first class, we’d be more than happy to stay in them gazing over the valley below for an extended period. They are being managed by the community for the private owner for three years and then ownership will pass on to the community totally. What a wonderful concept!

The camp manager is a young man named Mister Exit and he arranges a village tour for us. The village consists of a collection of family clusters of round huts made from grasses, small branches, cow manure and mud along with kraals for their goats. The village also has a substantial new clinic and a school. We visit one family and the men, wearing western clothing, are busy making a new hut while the women and young children are sitting waiting for us in their traditional attire. We are in Himba country now, they are one of the tribes of the Herero people but have retained their own unique way of dressing. They use a mixture of ochre butter and herbs to protect their skin and weave animal hair into their own to make long plaits. They wear beautifully tanned animal skin skirts and elaborate jewellery. Paul and Jen take plenty of photos while we are asking questions of them through Mister Exit. Jen has a modern Polaroid camera which can print durable photos which she gives to the women and they are a great hit, something I will definitely look into getting. The women have possibly never had a photo of themselves or the children they have in their laps. We leave them with a gift of food plus some money which they plan to use to visit the clinic.

Himba Ladies,
Onjuva Village,
NW Namibia

While we are out we visit the local primary school, on vacation at present, and talk with Mister Exit about local life. His brother is the teacher, and another local person is the nurse. Once children have finished primary school, if they are to get a further education, they have to board at schools in distant towns and once they have finished studying only a few are able to get jobs back here, though according to Mister Exit, they would all like to return home to work.

From Marble Camp we are travelling north to the Kunene River at the top of the Marienfluss Valley and then returning to Marble Camp so rather than tow our trailer up and back we leave it behind at the campground and use the roof top tent. As we are preparing to leave the family camping next to us, Boet and Martie along with their daughter, son in law and grand daughter ask if they can travel with us as it is rugged country and it is always safer to travel with others.

We have a slow start so it’s mid-morning before we begin the journey. The first few kilometres are easy but then we climb into the rocky hills and the track gets steeper, rougher and narrower. As we aren’t towing we take the lead and we cruise up effortlessly. The others are slower but both have very capable vehicles and they pick their way through without mishap. It takes an hour to travel 20km but by then we are through the worst of it. The next section is easier but no faster and it is lunchtime by the time we reach an intersection marked by the Roidrom (Red Drum). We turn right here and the road passes over a saddle, past a village and then descends into the Marienfluss Valley which stretches north and has very rugged and high ranges to the east and west. The only other track leading to this valley is Van Zyl’s Pass which crosses the eastern range and isn’t suitable for those with trailers. It is so narrow and steep that vehicles which use that track travel from east to west and should leave the Marienfluss along the road we used from the south.

The valley is covered in sparse yellow grass and the drive through, which is more than 50km, is delightful. Paul and I agree we’d love to camp here to see the early morning and late evening light on the grass and the mountains but no camping is allowed so we continue to the head of the valley where we reach the Kunene River and the border with Angola. There are two camps here and we stay in the community camp where we set up under the shade of a huge tree and then sit watching the river flow past and the rugged mountains on the other side.

It’s very hot and we are glad of the shade as crocs in the river mean that swimming is not an option but we’ve returned to ‘cricket’ country and they like the shade too so we have to resort to swiping them out of the way with our flip flops again. It’s nearly the end of their season and we certainly won’t miss them when they are gone. We stay two nights with a short drive one day to check out the local shop and to drive along the river as far as we can to a spot in some rapids which the locals use for swimming where it is safe from crocs.

Paul and I make a very early start next morning so we can catch some of the morning light in the valley. It is such a special time of the day and once again we wish we could have stayed out there. After some quick photos we find some shade to have breakfast and enjoy the serenity. When Jared and Jen arrive we retrace our tracks back to Marble Camp. We make a stop at the village near the red drum and ask if we can take photos which they agree to. They probably don’t get asked too often and one of the young girls has fun pulling faces at Paul and laughing with him.

We enjoy a third night at Marble Camp and make an early start in the morning as we have a long drive ahead of us to reach Opuwo. It’s actually only about 200km but with the rugged roads out here we want to allow at least eight hours. It’s another interesting drive and while the roads are rough to begin with they are nowhere near as rugged as the track up to Marienfluss and the further east we travel the better the roads get.

Opuwo is the biggest town we have been in since we left Swakopmund over two weeks ago with two big supermarkets and several small ones so we are looking forward to re-stocking, particularly with fresh fruit and vegetables. It is also our first opportunity to get fuel since Sesfontein. It’s got the first tarred roads we have seen since Swakopmund but the side roads are all dirt and its a dusty and unattractive town. We love it though. The Herero people have many tribes of which the Himba people are one. Unlike the bare-topped Himba women, many of the non Himba traditional older Herero women dress in elaborate multi coloured long dresses with large puffed sleeves and head dresses, often of the same material, shaped like the horns of a cow. Driving or walking along the street we see tribal people dressed in western clothes or in Herero dress or in traditional Himba clothing and others who may be wearing traditional clothing for Southern Angola and everyone seems to mix harmoniously. It all seems slightly chaotic but somehow relaxed and it feels a very friendly town. As usual we have some chores to do and while it seems difficult at first to find out where to go as soon as we ask we are quickly helped out or directed to the right place.

As we were coming in to town, about twenty kilometres out, the land cruiser started losing power at high revs and going up hills. When we got to town our first stop was a tyre shop for Jared and Jen to replace the tyre they had ruined on their trailer. We asked them where we could find a diesel mechanic and one of them ducked across the road and came back with Hennop … a diesel mechanic … who worked from a carport outside the bar we could see. He asked some very specific questions while he had a look under the hood / bonnet and quickly said he could fix it in half an hour. We drove across the road to his outdoor workshop and he quickly removed and cleaned the fuel injector as well as replacing a missing bolt on the starter motor. We met Hennops boss Sam, half Namibian and half South African, who gave us a short run down on the town and the local economy. A quick test drive and we are very pleased to have been able to sort the issue out so quickly and easily.

We are considering a camp site in town which doesn’t look ideal but should be OK for the night or two we are in town when Jen makes contact with a French overlanding family she has been following on the Internet (Les Doudz). They are in town too and along with a couple of French guys they are staying in a bush camp just outside town. We link up in town just as it is getting dark and follow them to the spot they have found. They have come through Africa from the north and it is good to hear where they have been and what it has been like. We have chores the next day as well as some catching up on the Internet and they are visiting a Himba village in the afternoon so we all stay at the same spot the next night as well.

Finally with fridges and stores restocked, laundry done, cars washed (to get the salt from the Skeleton Coast off), a new tyre for Jared and Jen, new flip flops for Paul and me to replace the ones broken or wearing out, a new hat to replace the one I’ve misplaced and a cleaned fuel injector for our car we are ready to head back to the Kunene River. This time we are travelling to Epupa Falls and while the road is dirt again it is in good condition, apart from some corrugations and the odd pothole.

This part of Namibia is still pretty remote but it is far more accessible than Marienfluss and attracts far more tourists and travellers. There are several places offering camping or other accommodation and we choose Omarunga Lodge right on the river which isn’t too crowded and offers large sites, a great pool to cool off in during the heat of the day and a pleasant bar and restaurant. The camp next door has no pool and is very crowded but has a great viewing deck and cheaper beers so it’s our pick for sundowners.

Epupa Falls drop a total of 60m over 1.5km but the greatest single drop is around 37m into a narrow cleft and is a five minute walk away. Our planned one night stop turns to three, there’s something about a comfortable camp, warm days, a swimming pool and a river flowing past which makes it easy to linger.

A track takes us east along the Kunene River to Ruacana. This track used to take days to negotiate but a couple of years ago they graded it and while still rough and steep in places it is easy enough to negotiate. With an early start and a longish day we could make it through in one day but in our normal relaxed mode we break the journey and spend a night at another camp by the river. We reach Ruacana mid morning and attempt to get a clear view of the falls but at present there is not much water coming over the cliff and there are far too many trees in the way.

We could turn north here and cross the border into Angola but we aren’t ready to leave Namibia yet and while we would all like to visit Angola that will come later in our travels through Africa. Instead we turn south, briefly call into the township of Ruacana then head over to the main south road where we leave behind the dirt tracks we have been travelling on for the past three weeks. We’re heading to Etosha National Park from here where we will find lots of animals, lots of tourists and a far more travelled part of the country. We’ve absolutely loved the north west of Namibia, is been truly special and it will certainly remain a highlight of my travelling memories.

North West Namibia 1: Skeleton Coast and Damaraland

Skeleton Coast,
NW Namibia

The Skeleton Coast stretches from Sandwich Harbour south of Swakopmund right up to the Kunene River which forms the border with Angola. Apart from the area surrounding Swakopmund and Walvis Bay and a few other very small settlements it is all protected for diamond mining … the so-called Forbidden Area or Sperrgebeit. Permits required for some sections and others only accessible as part of a tour with a registered concession holder. It consists of two million hectares of dunes and gravel plains which receive virtually no rain and only collect moisture from the frequent mists and fogs. We’ve travelled down to Sandwich Harbour, now we are about to go as far north along the coast as we are able to travel without joining a tour then we’ll travel inland up to the Kunene River on the Angolan border in our exploration of this very dry and remote corner of Namibia. It’s a very sparsely populated area so it’s good to be travelling with Jared and Jen  providing back up support for each other.

We leave the bitumen behind very soon after we drive north from Swakopmund. We won’t be seeing bitumen again for quite a while and possibly no shops so hopefully we have enough supplies. This is an excellent road though, oil has been poured onto compressed sand and the firm level surface provides a great drive and we can gaze out at the ocean and the desert as we travel north. It’s fairly calm today but this coastline has often proved treacherous with many ships wrecked along the coast over many years … hence the name, the Skeleton Coast. We pull over at a couple of rest stops and explore an old wreck at one of these, an Angolan fishing boat. At another stop Paul notes the numerous mussel shells strewn about by seagulls and other visitors and figures there are probably plenty of live mussels attached to the kelp lining the shore. In a very short time he gathers more than enough for our evening meal.

Mid afternoon we reach the seal colony at Cape Cross. It’s controlled by the national parks and while I wondered why we needed to pay to see seals when we have seen them before the sight of tens of thousands of seals lounging around on the rocks or swimming in the surf was amazing and well worth the visit.

The country along this part of the coast is very flat and we want to get out of sight for a bush camp so we take one of the few side tracks for a few kilometres until we reach a fold in the landscape where we set up camp. The land is rocky and almost barren but a few very hardy small plants hang on and a couple of curious jackal circles our camp but remain very wary of us. The peace is wonderful, after dinner we gaze at the stars and listen to the far off rumble of the waves breaking on the shore, enjoying the isolation on the desolate, but somehow dramatic coastline.

The drive next day is similar until we reach the south gate of the Skeleton Coast National Park around mid-afternoon. We have our permit to enter the park but no camping is allowed except for few months over the summer and we will need to show our permit when we exit so a bush camp inside the park is not an option. We want a full day for the transit through the park so we can see as much as possible so we won’t enter until tomorrow.  We head inland along the southern border of the national park without passing through the gate travelling next to the Ugab River, the same river we drove along north of the Brandberg. Once again we enjoy our bush camp, this time looking down into the dry river bed. Elephants sometimes frequent this area but the river is dry and the only animals we see are more jackals.

Our day in the Skeleton Coast Park is a very full one. We follow the main road that transits the park for most of the day but we have obtained a permit which allows us to travel further north along the coast past Torra Bay camp (only open in December and January) and as far as Terrace Bay which has a variety of accommodation, but no camping. A few small waterholes in one of the otherwise dry river beds support some game and we see several Oryx. Perennial water in this desert is extremely rare and amazing to see. At Terrace Bay we drive along the beach front searching unsuccessfully for a wreck marked on our map and inadvertently returning to the main road by driving along the runway of the airstrip. The landcruiser is far too slow for take off though so we remain firmly planted in the ground. A short loop drive behind the settlement takes us through dunes and provides some great views of the settlement and the desert as it sweeps down to the sea.

Back on the transit road we turn east toward the Springbokwasser gate. As we leave the coast the landscape changes again and the hills and the vegetation, mainly grasses, increase. In the late afternoon the colours intensify and even though we are nearing the time we need to exit the park we have to pause at the top of crests to admire the vast view in front of us. We had thought we would have another bush camp but the campsite outside the gate is convenient and even though it is right next to the road there will be no passing traffic so it offers another peaceful night. It was a good decision as I hear a hissing and discover we have very recently punctured a tyre. It’s soon changed but wear on the tyre suggests we’ll need to replace it soon.

Inland from the Skeleton Coast lie the tribal areas of Damaraland and the Kaokoveld. We’ve already visited part of Damaraland when we were at Spitzkoppe and the Brandberg but we have yet to visit Twyfelfontein (Doubtful Spring) which has one of the most extensive rock art galleries in the continent. A bush camp would be nice but most of the area is in conservation zones with no camping signs so we find a nice spot in the Abadi campground. We’ve got shade, power, a bar and great toilets and showers which are mainly made from local materials with taps sprouting from trees, shower heads either a pipe providing a single stream of water or pushing it through an empty water bottle with holes in its base, walls made of light branches bound together and no roofs so you can see the blue sky in the day time and stars at night.

Visits to the Twyfelfontein rock art site can only be made with a national park guide who are drawn from the local area. Our guide is Mona Lisa, so named because “her mum liked the name”. Many of the engravings represent animals that are no longer found in the area and quite a few depict a shaman, or witch doctor, taking on an animal form. Mona Lisa explains the ways in which the San people used particular animals to communicate details of the area to others. A rhino image points the way to nearby water, while a giraffe would indicate the lack of water. Elephant droppings show that they are not only still in the area but when they want to sample the tasty bushes halfway up the slopes they are quite capable of rock climbing and clambering.

After we’ve finished our tour of the rock art site we set out to try and find the elephants which have been seen recently near a local dam. We find the dam easily but no elephants and we spend the next couple of hours following tracks through the grasslands and over gentle hills and along water courses trying to spot them. Lots of great views, plenty of ostriches and an enjoyable afternoon but no elephants and we continue our cross country tracking and make it all the way back to camp, the last few miles along a sandy but dry river bed without going on any of the gravel roads thereby missing all the corrugations.

Another attraction we visit in the area is the Petrified Forest. Here we accompany a guide on a walk to view petrified tree trunks up to 34m long and 6m in circumference which are estimated to be up to 260 million years old. There are no root or branch remnants and they are believed to have been transported here from Central Africa in a massive flood after one of the ice ages.

The nearby Twyfelfontein Country Lodge has a workshop which we visit to see about getting our tyre repaired but when we look closely we see that the punctured tyre and one other are both showing too much wear to bother so we’ll need to buy two new tyres as soon as possible. In the meantime we call into the lodge to check out the views from the main building which is embedded into the massive red rocks at the base of a line of hills bordering the valley. The entry walkway leads through narrow openings between massive boulders which have some more of the ancient engravings by the San people. The restaurant and bar are elevated and the decks provide a great view over the plains. They would be a great place for sunset but we settle for a cool drink before returning to camp.

From Twyfelfontein we head north to the conservancy and lodge at Palmwag our lunch stop. We’ve rung them in advance and they have two tyres which will fit our land cruiser. Other than making a detour of a couple of hundred kilometres to Kuminjab this will be our last opportunity to get new tyres before we enter the rugged far north west area. We also pass through the vet fence here which runs right across Namibia and which separates the southern areas which are free of foot and mouth disease and other diseases from those in the north who have had some outbreaks. We have no problems heading north but when we cross it going south we cannot carry any raw red meat, chicken or plants with roots.

Camping at the Palmwag lodge doesn’t appeal and entry fees into their conservancy are high so we continue north reaching the community camp of Khowarib by mid afternoon. It’s perched above the Hoanib River and each of the large campsites has its own own private rustic toilet and shower plus a kitchen area next to a large shaded braai area. We all agree its lovely so we stay the night, in fact we stay two.

Hoanib River,
Khowarib Camp,
NW Namibia

Our route turns north west now and we pass through the communities of Warmquelle and Sesfontein. We’d read and been told there are no shops in this area and fuel only at Sesfontein but although the fuel advice was right we found shops in both communities. OK they aren’t western style supermarkets but we could get basic dried goods, cold drinks, alcohol, fresh bread and even some fresh produce, well potatoes and onions anyway. Everyone is friendly and when we want to top up our water tank we are lead to a private home by some young people who are pleased we are enjoying their country and keen to help us in any way they can. One young girl asks where we are going and then gives us a run-though of the places we will go through and what we might find there. Sesfontein is the most northerly part of Damaraland and we are now heading into the Kaokoveld, the traditional home of the Herero people which will take us through the most remote and rugged land in the country and right up to the border with Angola. Kaokoland is an area that Paul has wanted to visit for a long time and Julie, Jared and Jen are very keen as well. We have come along way to get to this part of Namibia and we are all interested to see what will unfold as we head towards the Marienfluss and the Kunene River the traditional land of the Himba People.

Central Namibia

Huge Sand Dunes flow down to the Ocean at Sandwich Harbour

Windhoek is the capital of Namibia and the most densely populated part of the country but it is still a small city. Lots of international tourists visit Namibia and with good reason because there are many wonderful places to visit and unique experiences in this desert country. Most people will start in the capital or at least visit it and Windhoek is fairly well set up to meet their needs. We arrive in Windhoek with a list of repairs and things to do including re-fixing the gearbox (which we thought had been ‘fixed’ by Toyota in Knysna, South Africa), purchasing various camping items, repairing the screen onPaul’s iPad and changing the wheel bearings on the trailer. It takes lots of phone calls and emails to Toyota to finally get their agreement that they would cover the costs of the repair under warranty from the previous work and plenty of running around to find the bits and pieces we need and work progresses in ‘Africa time’. We have to hire a car so that we can get around while the Landcruiser is being repaired but, in the end, we hardly use it at all. Eventually however our gearbox is repaired … again … and although we haven’t had the opportunity to get all the other jobs done  or to do a great deal of sight seeing we are keen to get out of the city before the Easter break slows down all work and traps us for an extra four or five days.

In the meantime mother nature has had a good time and sent a couple of heavy rainstorms across the area. The first formed a temporary lake around our camp site at Elisenheim and briefly caused a flow in the previously dry river bed we had to cross to reach the camp. The sun returned the next day and we ventured out long enough to return our rental car, visit a local bar and dry out our mats but then the rain returned even more strongly. This time a dam located up river fills up and a substantial amount of water is released so we watch the river in front of us rise from a fast knee deep flow to a racing waist deep torrent in less than fifteen minutes. Luckily it drops almost as quickly and we are able to safely venture through it the next day. Elisenheim has proved to be an inspired choice as a place to stay on the outskirts of Windhoek. It is in the bush, but only ten kilometres from the city. The German owners cater to ‘Overlanders’ like us and those who visit regularly and park their own vehicles at Elisenheim while they are back in Europe working. We meet German, Dutch, Italian and Swiss people during our week there. They have their own workshop which Jared uses to change the oil in his Jeep. The restaurant can deliver fresh brochen (bread rolls) to your camp site each morning if you so wish.

We are still traveling with Jared and Jen and we are headed for Swakopmund on the Skeleton Coast west of Windhoek. As we are leaving on Easter Thursday and the coast is a very popular destination over the holiday period we decide to take a round about route via three mountain ranges over the long weekend. We reach the small town of Omaruru on our first night and are very happy with our camp by the river. It looks an interesting town but when we drive through in the morning everything is closed, not surprising as it is Good Friday. A short distance west we enter the Erongo Mountain conservancy which is a collection of ranches that have formed a wildlife conservation zone. There is one campsite along the way but not surprisingly it is fully booked so we continue our journey enjoying the scenery and the magnificent mountains surrounding us.

By the time we emerge from the range we are into desert country and by the time we reach the town of Uis the land is parched and it looks a very tough place to live. Our campsite for the night is more upmarket than we are used to with each site having a shade shelter high enough to park under, a dining table and chairs, a kitchen bench and sink and an attached shower and toilet. There is also a pool which is very welcome on such a hot day. The next day we travel on towards the Brandberg. We stop along the way to enjoy the view and then we come across a Pajero which has broken down. A small mob of people are standing around drinking beer in the hot sun. We stop to see if we can help and introduce ourselves to the family from Windhoek who are showing a visitor from the US around. Jared and Jen (who hail from Oregon in the Pacific North West) quickly get chatting. We find out that the problem with the vehicle is a loose spark plug! Jared and Paul dig out some tools and it is quickly fixed. Soon after we head further west around the southern edge of the Brandberg. We see lots and lots of Welwitschia plants as we get further out into the desert.

The Brandberg, or Fire Mountain, is a massive pink granite mountain rising from the flat plains surrounding it. It is named for the colours which light up is western face as the sun sets. We spend the next two days driving around the mountains with an overnight bush camp on the western side. The evening light was fabulous and Paul also took advantage of the pre-sunrise light from the top of the hill behind our camp to capture some more of the magic of this place. All of the driving was enjoyable with the drive along the north face the most memorable as we drove along the sandy bed of the Ugab River and then followed the track in and out of valleys which promised more great stops for overnight bush camps.

Instead of spending another night here however we headed south toward Spitzkoppe, another dramatic but smaller group of mountains. It’s late in the afternoon when we arrive at the national park gate and pay our entrance and camping fees. Sites are spread around the base of Spitzkoppe and the neighbouring Pondoks which are enormous granite domes. This is a very popular camping area so we’ve left our visit until almost the end of Easter but it’s still very busy and we end up on an overflow site for the night and move to a delightful spot nestled between huge rocks for the next two nights. It’s a perfect spot to camp, or if would have been if an aggressive scorpion hadn’t decided to sting Jen on the toe while she was cooking dinner. Ouch, very, very ouch!

We can walk or drive ourselves to some of the interesting rock formations around Spitzkoppe but a large area of the park can only be visited with a guide which we arrange to do during the afternoon for a two hour tour. Our guide directs us to several sites with San rock art and tells us the stories about the art and life in the area when the paintings were made. After our tour in the park he takes us to the local village shebeen (bar) and we get a taste of village life – and he gets a lift home.

Now that Easter is over we head to the coast. The main tourist town is Swakopmund but a heavy mist frequently envelops the town until 11 or 12 am each morning so we camp at Sophiadale, a small settlement ten kilometres east. Orange dunes rise along the river which is lined by green trees, it may be desert here but market gardens and vegetable tunnels show that good use is made of the water flowing west from the Namib escarpment. Sophiadale is a pleasant campground. There is no grass but at least we have shade and Paul has an area where he can work which is important as we will be here for at least a week. We didn’t get the opportunity to get a few jobs done while we were in Windhoek because we were without our car. We’ve had some electrical problems with both the car and trailer but a nearby auto electrician is able to fix some incorrect wiring in the car and diagnose a faulty battery in the trailer which is easily replaced. We also need the wheel bearings on the trailer replaced so we book that job in to be done on the day we are leaving to avoid having to pack it all up twice.

Our sightseeing includes exploring the old German built town which has a colonial feel and lots of interesting buildings. Sunset over the Atlantic ocean provides a great view but warm clothing is a must as the temperature drops sharply at this time of year. It is also a great place to do some major food shopping as this will be our last opportunity for quite a while. We visit most of the camping shops in town and spend a morning looking around the art galleries, curio shops and bookshops.

The Dorob and the Namib Naukluft National Parks lie to the east of the coast and we could easily spend days exploring these but we settle for a half day drive. The landscape is barren and very stark but fascinating. Lichen cover huge areas and you need to get out and pour a little water on them to appreciate their colour. They survive on moisture from the mists which roll in from the ocean. The most amazing plant is the Welwitschia which can be up to 2,000 years old and which send tap roots deep into the desert in search of underground water as well as utilising the moisture from the mists. A huge specimen we see is more than 1,500 years old, amazing. On our return journey we have lunch at the farm and oasis of Goanikontes which dates from 1848 and which was used as a hideout by German soldiers during World War One. After lunch Paul briefly leaves his seat and one of the farm pets jumps on his seat to see if the crumpled serviette might be worth eating.

Another day we drive 30km south of Swakopmund along the coast to the town of Walvis Bay. The town itself is not very inspiring, it was a British colony rather than German and the architecture is predictably bland but the geography provides far more interest. It is a natural harbour and we drive south of the town to the salt works across a well made road past flamingos gathered in the lagoon. From here we decrease our tyre pressure and turn back north on the other side of the lagoon. We plow through the sand until we reach the lighthouse, now an upmarket resort although apparently empty at present. After a picnic lunch by the waters edge we return to Walvis Bay and then to Sophiadale via the inland route which takes us past huge sand dunes.

Our final excursion in this area is the most thrilling. We need a permit to visit Sandwich Harbour, 56km south of Walvis Bay and a guide is also highly recommended so we arrange both in Swakopmund. On the day of our visit we meet our guide in Swakopmund at 7.00am. For the journey south he travels with Jared and Jen and they take the lead. We quickly pass through Walvis Bay and turn inland at the salt works where the track gets far more interesting. Sometimes we are driving along dirt tracks between scrubby bushes and other time we are in soft sand skirting sand dunes and struggling to maintain our momentum. Jared and Jen have less power under the bonnet of their US Jeep but it’s been heavily customised and they have plenty of torque and very wide tyres which means they manage the track well but a few times we need to backtrack and pick a path along the edge rather than over a dune. The other vehicles which handle the tracks well are the donkey carts, not with the usual two donkeys we have seen elsewhere but with four abreast, their version of a 4×4 we think!

After an exciting drive we return to the coast just north of Sandwich Harbour and keep heading south along the beach. We certainly needed the guide to get to this spot as several times the correct track was not at all obvious and there are no signposts out here. The tide is on its way in and soon this section of the beach will be underwater and there are too many very high and soft dunes inland to make any other route possible. The lagoon at Sandwich Harbour at the end of the drive is used by tens of thousands of migratory birds at certain times of the year but we’re not here at the right time so we settle for enjoying the sand and ocean and the sight of the dunes cascading down to the sea. Our guide suggests we stop for just a short time so we can return before the high tide but we’re not in a hurry and have a picnic lunch to share with him so we take it easy for a few hours until the tide has reached its peak and begun to drop. While we are there we enjoy the sight of a few dolphins cruising by a short distance from the shore.

A couple of hours after high tide we begin our return journey. Because the tide is dropping we have the option of returning along the beach most of the way. It will save time and because it will be late by the time we get back to Swakopmund we head north along the base of the sand dunes just a few metres from the sea. Sometimes the sand is still too wet and soft so we need to find our way a short distance inland but eventually we approach the salt works from the southern end and our guide directs us through the confusing maze of roads surrounding the pans. Finally we’re back on bitumen, we reinflate our tyres and make it back to Swakopmund by 6.00 pm, 11 hours after we left.

Our sightseeing is done, fridges and storage drawers are stacked and most of our chores completed so it’s time to set out on the next leg of our trek. We pack up early and drop our trailer in to have the wheel bearings replaced. It should be finished by lunchtime and Jared and Jen have a replacement part for their trailer to collect mid morning so we should all be ready to go early afternoon. Not quite, when we arrive to collect the trailer they have discovered the brake pads need replacing or relining. There is no business in the area who has the pads in stock but they know a business in Walvis Bay who will reline the pads this afternoon if we take them there so it’s off to spend an afternoon sitting in the sun by the bay while we wait for the job to be done. By the time we return to Swakopmund with the relined brake pads it is nearly knock off time at the repair place so we leave the trailer there to be collected in the morning and spend the night in the roof top tent at a cold, misty and bleak camping area just north of town. We’re not holding up Jared and Jen though, their part hadn’t arrived as expected but finally arrives on the late afternoon bus from Windhoek so we are all finally ready to go by mid morning, less than a day after planned. Now we are ready for our trek into the remote north west. It will be good to be away from towns for a while!

On the Okavango

We just arrived in the Caprivi Strip in the far north east of Namibia. We’re staying at the Nunda River Lodge on the banks of the Okavango River, tough view from the bar huh? We have two weeks left on our three month Namibian visa and plan to have some r&r time after all the travelling so we’ll be at this campsite for at least a week. We’ve seen so many wonderful sights in this country and I’m way behind on my blog posts but hopefully I’ll catch up while I’m here. Naturally Paul will also be working on his huge backlog of photos, he has so many extraordinary images it will be good for him to have more time to spend preparing them for sharing.
We’ll also need time to explore this amazing area. Here the Okavango has flowed out of Angola and along the border between Namibia and Angola and just 80 km downstream it flows into the Okavango Delta in Botswana. Apart from taking drives into the nearby Mahango Game Reserve we hope to see hippos passing by our campsite on the way to their feeding grounds and a sunset cruise is also on offer.

Southern Namibia

Desert Dunes at Soussesvlei

We leave South Africa in the far north west of the country by crossing the Orange River between Alexander Bay and Oranjemund. Here the river reaches the sea after its long and winding path. It’s source is in the Drakensberg mountains in the east of South Africa then it travels through Lesotho as the Senq River before returning to South Africa and crossing the country. In times past it collected diamonds from the remnants of old volcanoes along the way and deposited them into the ocean to be washed up the coast. A section of the coast south of the border, as well as a stretch along the south bank of the river plus large expanses of country north of the border is now sperrgebiet, or forbidden country, with entry strictly regulated and enforced by armed guards. It is all controlled by the diamond mines and the government. As well as passing through immigration and customs when we cross the border we also need a permit to travel along the road next to the river to reach the other side of the mining land. All the formalities are simple and the only delay we strike is the time spent chatting to the guy providing the transit permit who is keen to share his experience as a tour guide and give us information about places to visit and what we can expect along the way.

The road along the river is far better than we expected, half had been recently tarred and the remainder is also in reasonable condition. The land is dry and rugged with frequent signs of the mining activity and the river is brown and wide with patches of trees providing the only signs of vegetation. For all that it’s a compelling and fascinating drive. On one occasion we spot a line of Oryx walking along the skyline at the top of a massive mine dump. By the time we reach the end of the mining area it’s early afternoon, a long trip to end up just across the river from the camp in the Richtersveld National Park where we spent last night. If the punt across the river had been operating we could have crossed the border here and saved considerable time but then we would have missed an interesting drive.

We continue along the river passing through the bottom section of the Ai-Ais/Fish River National Park and then turn north to drive to the camp site at Ai-Ais. This area is at the bottom of the Fish River Canyon and the main attractions are the hot springs and the spas. We like visiting hot springs, great for aching muscles, but it’s hot and we’re tired after a long drive so we are looking forward to a refreshing dip in the swimming pool instead. The water is not quite what we were hoping for though, it’s filled from the hot springs as well and although it’s nowhere near as hot as the 65° spa it’s in the high twenties. Even so once we have got used to the warmer than expected temperature we feel refreshed and far more relaxed so the minerals in the water have worked well.

It’s a hot night at the bottom of the canyon with no breeze so we’re happy to move to the main Fish River Canyon camp ground at Hobas the next day. Arriving before lunch we have our choice of sites and pick a spot with plenty of shade before driving out mid afternoon for our first look at the canyon from the rim. The Canyon is 10km from the camp and we visit several view points. Our first stop isn’t even at one of the designated view points but when we leave the car and approach the edge we are both speechless at the grandeur spread in front of us. The edge drops steeply away, almost vertical in some spots and the river meanders 270 metres below us in great sweeping horseshoe bends almost forming islands and greatly increasing the distance hikers must walk to complete the gruelling 85km five day hike from here to Ai-Ais. There are no hikers at present as permits for the hike are only issued in the cooler and drier months. In the middle of the day the colours are mainly shades of brown and grey but late afternoon and early morning show a much wider spectrum of colours. To add to the drama of our first visit storm clouds have formed and thunder crashes around us. Squalls of rain are seen at spots in the distance but at times it appears the water evaporates before it hits the ground. There is so much static electricity in the air that moving a pointed finger through the air produces crackles and sparks and our hair is standing on end. The same thing happens when Paul takes a panaorama shot with the phone and we wonder wether that can really be good for the phone.

We stay at Hobas for two nights which provides the opportunity for two pre-sunrise visits and two late afternoon sessions at various places along the eastern rim of the canyon. In the afternoons we take in the various views before settling in one spot for sunset drinks and nibbles and of course more photography. During the heat of the day we keep cool by sheltering in the shade of our camp and taking dips in the pool.

From Hobas we take the scenic route into Keetmanshoop to do a little shopping. The town is almost deserted and most shops are closed as it is the afternoon of Independence Day, 27 years since the country ceased being South West Africa, a protectorate of South Africa. We find one supermarket open and the staff are dressed in traditional clothes of the area with elaborate bright pink skirts or dresses.

From there we drive west along the highway toward the coast. We’re headed for the town of Luderitz but it’s too far to reach today so we call into a couple of places in search of a shaded camp site. It’s very hot and the sites have little or no shade so we keep driving until after 5.00pm when the worst of the heat has passed and we stop in a roadside rest stop at the top of a pass. The views are great and by dark the traffic has ceased so we have a peaceful night.

In the morning we make an early start so we can start our crossing of the Namib desert with the sun rising behind us. What a wonderful way to start the day. We reach the tiny town of Aus before breakfast but nothing is open so we eat at another rest stop just past the town. Before long we are entering the sperrgebiet, from here until we reach the outskirts of Luderitz more than 100 km away we are not allowed to leave the road. Rest stops with shelters provide the only shade and the small amount of vegetation we had been seeing disappears so the surrounding country is either long stretches of sand and sand dunes with distant hills or jagged collections of rocky mounds. It sounds bleak but it’s also beautiful in its own way.

The Road to Luderitz

Luderitz is a small town built within rocky outcrops on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. It’s heritage is German, diamonds and seafood and apart from the drama of its location between the desert and the ocean it is well worth a visit to see the grand colonial buildings and the colourful art deco houses. After touring around the town to see the sights, not a long tour as the town is small, we search for a place with good coffee and find a delightful garden café opposite the waterfront which makes ok coffee, very good bread rolls and amazing baked cheesecake. Hunger pangs alleviated we drive to the lighthouse in front of the town which is built on a rocky outcrop and is surrounded by a camping area. It’s rocky, is exposed to the frequent strong winds and has little shade but apart from that the location is perfect.

We end up spending five nights here and while the wind became a little tiresome the area provides plenty of photographic opportunities including Flamingos, Gemsbok/Oryx and Springbok close to town, another lighthouse 22km away at Diaz Point, little bays along the peninsula south of town and lots of well preserved and colourful art nouveau buildings in the town. Fellow travellers Jared and Jen from the US arrived shortly after us and after comparing travel plans we realised we would be visiting a lot of the same places. They are also planning on spending three months in Namibia so our paths are bound to keep crossing. We join them to watch the sun set over the bay on a couple of evenings and to enjoy a meal at an excellent seafood restaurant in the town.

About 10km inland from Luderitz is the ghost town of Kolmanskop. This was the major company town for diamond mining until the 1950s when richer finds were discovered at Oranjemund and the headquarters were shifted and the town deserted. It is within the sperrgebiet but permits are easily arranged and it is a popular tourist destination in the area as well as offering numerous photographic opportunities. The usual permit allows entry only between 9.00am and 1.00pm but photographic permits provide access from sunrise to sunset. Naturally Paul is there before sunrise then returns to camp so we can both visit during the usual hours and he returns a third time for sunset shots very pleased with what he has seen and photographed during his visits.

An informative tour is included as part of the permit and then we wander on our own through buildings in various stages of decay with sand drifting in and around. In its heyday the town had a casino and bowling alley as well as a theatre for shows by visiting performers, including opera singers. Some of the houses are very grand although the view through the windows to the bleak desert outside would have provided a stark contrast to the opulence inside. Now the bright desert sunlight filters through broken slats on to the faded wallpaper and sandy floorboards.

Leaving Luderitz we fill our freezer with fish and squid from one of the seafood processing plants. We retrace our road through the Namib desert to Aus smiling at the sight of the still under construction railway line disappearing into a sand dune and reappearing a hundred metres later at the other side of the relentless shifting sand. Dozers are parked beside the road near large dunes to help in the never ending job of keeping the road clear. Once the railway is in use they will need to work doubly hard.

From Aus we turn north along some dusty tracks through wonderful scenery. The roads are far better than expected, occasional soft or rough patches but generally very easy going. Hills and mountains with vastly different colours surround us as we drive through the valley. Some are sand dunes and they range from deep orange to white and the rocky hills could be red, black, brown, pink or mauve.

We turn off the road into a ranch which offers camping and follow the track to the base of the hills. At the homestead we are directed to the camp site a few kilometres away. A young Dutch couple are already camped there but there is heaps of room so we soon set up near a shady tree and braai to enjoy the rest of the afternoon and evening. Jared and Jen arrive soon after us and claim the next tree before joining us to share the braai and to watch the colours change in the wide open view in front of us and then the sky fill with stars.

Sunrise at Namtib

The light in the morning is wonderful and as the hills behind us block the early morning sun the temperature remains mild longer than usual so we are in no hurry to get back on the road. When we eventually make a move we continue or journey through the beautiful valley. After a reasonably long, for us, drive we reach Sesriem where we hope to spend a few nights. We have been told the campsite in the national park must be pre-booked as it is very popular but we are lucky enough to get one of two available sites. Lots of the sites have good shade but ours is pretty bleak with just a small tree but we’re not planning on spending much time at the camp and we are just happy to have got a site at all. Our tree does have a large Social Weavers nest in it. These can vary in size and the largest are conglomerations of hundreds of nests in one giant mass which looks somewhat like thatching.

Weaver Bird Nest at Sesriem

From the camp we can drive to Sossusvlei which is right in the Namib desert with massive dunes which display their most intense colours at sunrise and sunset. The drive takes almost an hour and the internal control gate is not opened until 6.00am, an hour before the sun rises but if we had to camp outside the park we would not be able to start the drive until 7.00am and we would miss the most spectacular part of the day.

We’re in the park for three nights and the days fall into a pattern. Up in the dark at 5.30am and lining up at the control gate by 5.50. A quick drive for 60km on the paved road to the 2wd car park then a much slower 5km drive through deep soft sand to the final car park. Photography and a stroll to enjoy the colours and views and quietness of the desert calm fill in the next hour or so then we sit in the shade for a leisurely breakfast and coffee loving the atmosphere of this amazing place. We had planned on some walking to a couple of other vleis (low lying flat areas sometimes marshy but in these cases almost always dry and surrounded by dunes) but by the time we have had our breakfast the day is far too hot for us to enjoy a walk.

By the time we return to camp the morning has nearly finished and as we plan to go out again we have just a few hours to eat lunch, take a swim in the pool and to do some reading or download photos before we get ready for our next outing. Our evening destinations include some of the dunes on the road out to Sossusvlei or the lookout closest to camp near Elim Dune. After we have watched the sun set, around 7.00pm, we have an hour to watch the remaining light and to get back to camp before the control gate is closed. Then it’s time to prepare dinner before we fall into bed so we can repeat the same thing the next day.

After a wonderful but exhausting three days we leave Sesriem to start our journey towards Windhoek, the capital of Namibia. We’re not planning on arriving there for four or five days so we plan to stop in a couple of places along the way. We call into several camping and accommodation places but aren’t happy with any of them so we stop for a break in a cafe in one of the tiny settlements along the way.

It’s home week when we walk into the café. Two German girls we had been speaking to at Sesriem greet us from one table and we join Jared and Jen at the next table. They have also been looking for a spot to camp on the way to Windhoek so we join forces in our search. Two more camps are rated unsatisfactory and then a third of the way up the very steep Spreetshoogte Pass we turn off the road and find three sites carved out of the hillside. Two are camp sites with their own private shower and toilet with a verandah in front and the other is a cabin with beds for four. The view is outstanding and we’re keen to stay but wondering how we get in touch with the owner when he drives in to greet us.

Hugh has two ranches on the valley floor and saw us drive in. He shows us how everything operates, provides us with some extra firewood and takes orders for some braai packs to be delivered the next day. When they arrive they are accompanied by some complimentary corn bread Hugh’s wife baked, delicious. Life on the edge is wonderful, the views are mesmerising and the verandah provides shade, there is water and our solar panels provide power so we’re all happy to stay five nights before we need to head into the city. Paul manages a couple of days of photo processing but then fridge and battery problems consume most of the power we generate so he has to restrict his computer use.

Spreetshoogte, Southern Namibia

One of our major activities is cricket. Chasing huge crickets away, bowling stones at them and jumping when they crawl on us. They’re always around at this time of the year and none of us have ever seen any as large or relentless as these. Our flip flops make good cricket bats and we send them flying to clear our work and sitting areas.

Finally we’re ready to head into the city. The rest of the pass has to be climbed and we are concerned about our towing ability. The land cruiser will get anywhere we want but the power is low so on gradients as steep as these we need low range 4wd. That’s not usually a problem but they have paved the road up the pass and there are a couple of very tight turns and it is not good to use 4wd in these circumstances. Jared offers to tow our trailer up and save us a 100km detour so we travel together across to the highway and into Windhoek.

We’re all in the Elisenheim Guest Farm camping area 10km north of the city and staying for a week. We’re having more problems with our gear box which are being fixed by Toyota (under warranty we hope) as well as other chores and Jared and Jen also have work to do before we head back out of town. In the meantime we’re enjoying the peace of the country mixed with comfort of an excellent restaurant and the early morning wake up of the naughty Baboons. We’re not sure yet when we’ll get the car back but we’ll keep you posted on our future adventures.

PS, we picked up the car late Wednesday afternoon and left Windhoek Thursday morning so we could get out of town before Easter. We’re heading for the coast at Swakopmund but it will be very busy over Easter so we’re detouring through some of the mountains slightly north of there on our way. Hoping you are all having or have had a lovely holiday break.

Kwazulu Natal, The Land God Gave to the Zulus

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We leave Johannesburg a few days after Christmas to start our meandering circuit around South Africa. Our first destination is the province of Kwa Zulu Natal in the north east section of the country, Kwa Zulu meaning land of the Zulus and Natal the traditional British name for the area. KZN has some stunning boundaries; the Indian Ocean on its east side, Mozambique and Swaziland to the north, and the Drakensberg mountains rising up to Lesotho in the west. There are an abundance of national parks and reserves with attractions ranging from soaring peaks and plunging waterfalls to wetlands and coastal rain forests, and animals including giraffe, elephants, antelope, hippos and the big five in game reserves.

We’re headed for Durban to stay with Paul’s sister Sarah for a few days but we’re breaking the trip with an overnight stay at the base of the northern section of the Drakensberg mountains in the Royal Natal National Park. The drive out of Johannesburg is predictably busy and after passing through the centre of the city we find the freeways the easiest way to pass through the flat and fairly monotonous highveld to Harrismith. We leave the freeway here and the scenery becomes far more interesting.

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The Drakensberg Mountains dominate the skyline to the right. They rise high above the surrounding plains and the closer we approach the more dominant they become. Along the way we pass Sterkfontein Dam, even this is high enough for vultures to be fed at a spot beside the dam but feeding isn’t in progress and we don’t see any vultures today. We turn toward the mountains and after driving along winding roads past villages and smiling people we enter the Royal Natal National Park. We have booked a campsite at the Rugged Glen camping area. It’s the smaller of the two camps in this section of the park and while it is slightly further from the mountains and has a less commanding view it is far quieter, especially at this time of the year, and it is surrounded by lots of tall trees so we are very happy with our choice. During our lunch the clouds over the mountains thicken and a short rain shower is accompanied by thunder and lightning. By the time we’ve finished eating the rain has almost stopped so we take a drive into the heart of the park. The grey clouds start to break up and the sun shines on wet rocks making them glisten and accentuating their colours. When we reach the end of the road the clouds are still around but they have lifted a little so we see the full expanse of the 5 kilometre long curved cliff face that is The Amphitheatre. The top of The Amphitheatre is around 2,000 feet above us.

A number of walks start from the car park at the end of the road and although we have no intention of completing any of them today we take a short walk up the track to see if we can get a clearer view of the mountains. The bushes around the track keep us cool but obscure the view and a fallen tree we would have to climb over or crawl under discourages our onward journey but it was nice to get out and stretch the legs for a change. We stop along the road and also at the dam on our way back and Paul is happy with the views he captures in his photos.

As we are only staying one night we use the roof top tent instead of setting up the camper trailer tent and we spend a cosy night listening to the wind in the trees. In the morning we make an early visit to the dam for more photos. It’s a glorious sunny morning so we are treated to a full view of The Amphitheatre with just a few wispy white clouds in an otherwise clear blue sky. It’s far more common for the cliffs to be obscured by clouds so we have been very lucky.

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By the time we have returned to camp for breakfast and showers it’s mid morning and we have quite a lot of driving to do. We start by following dirt roads through the low hills past villages to the town of Bergville. We’re in the Midlands section of KZN now and while we could rejoin the freeway and have a quick drive into Durban we meander along secondary roads through pretty villages with names like Nottingham Road and Lions River, and past the Capture Site where Nelson Mandela was arrested. Gently rolling hills surround us now but as we are still fairly high above sea level the temperature is mild, a great place of retreat from the heat and humidity on the coast during summer or the cold winters in the Highveld. The ample guest houses, restaurants and craft shops, many with very kitsch names like Piggly Wiggly, Toad Hall Cottages and The Patchwood Elephant show the popularity of the area as a holiday destination.

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We make a stop for coffee in one town and lunch in another and then stop in Howick where we admire the view of the waterfall right near the town centre. It’s hot and busy with tourists so we don’t stop long and soon we’re entering the Valley of a Thousand Hills, the heart of Zululand. More magnificent scenery is on offer although there is a lot of heat haze. Dirt roads wind up and down the ranges in the distance, it would be great to have the time to explore deeper into the valley but for now we must follow the main road which skirts the edge. Soon the road descends and we rejoin the freeway for the final run into Durban.

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We spend the next few days with Sarah and Ian at their home in the northern beach side suburb of La Lucia. We take a drive into the city centre and through some of the picturesque suburbs one day and return to the CBD the next day with Sarah’s son Dylan to visit the markets. A guide certainly helps here as there are multiple sections spread out over a few blocks with high walkways and stairways between the old market and the newer tourist market, the fish market and the meat market. Fruit and vegetables are in yet another section and the last one we visit  is given over to traditional medicines with many strange barks and powders on offer. It’s the day after New Years Day and technically a public holiday so not all sections of the market are open, it sure would be chaotic in normal times. We leave with some spices to sample and hope to return if time permits.

We are conscious of time restraints but there is a large section of KZN north of Durban we would like to see while we are in the area so we leave the trailer at Sarah’s and head off with the roof top tent. Its raining today but the forecast for tomorrow is clear so we are hopeful of some good sight seeing. Our first destination is Hluhluwe-Imfolozi National Park. I have finally got my tongue around some of the place names here. Many have multiple consonants like the capital of Swaziland, Mbabane which is not too difficult being pronounced ‘m-ba-barn’, but Hl is tricky and is pronounced as a guttural ‘shl’, so Hluhluwe becomes ‘shlu-shlu-wee’, or at least something like that. There is a lodge and chalets in the national park but they are quite expensive and there is no camping nearby so we have decided to stay at a backpackers near the northern entrance to the park. It has very good reviews but we decide that while it is acceptable for a night’s stay the reviews are over-rated. Never mind, we take a drive in the park in the afternoon, return for dinner and to sleep and we leave before breakfast in the morning to enter the park soon after it opens at 5.00am.

The northern section of the park, Hluhluwe, has many grassy hills and we follow dirt tracks up and around the hills and down to a pleasant picnic area by the river. The rain has made the tracks very slippery, no problems for us but we watch one small car spinning its wheels as the driver tries to back out of a muddy section. Luckily he made it as we were not looking forward to getting out in the mud to help him. We enjoy the scenery and spot lion, rhinos, buffalo, wildebeest, zebra, wart hogs and various antelope but it isn’t until we head to the southern section of the park, Imfolozi, that we see giraffe and elephants. There are also reportedly lion, leopard, cheetah and wild dog in this section along with a wider range of antelope but we don’t see any of these in the time we have available.

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We had thought of having two nights here but as we weren’t impressed with the accomodation we decide to drive to another game park not too far away where they have both camping and very reasonably priced rest huts available. The iSimangaliso Wetland Park stretches along the north coast of KZN from the border of Mozambique 200 km south to St Lucia and inland to the uMkhuze Park. The park was listed as South Africa’s first World Heritage Site in 1999 and the name means miracle or wonder so it is not surprising that we we plan to visit as many of the sections of the park as we can. uMkhuze is our first destination in this system. As well as bushland sections of the park there are large pans spreading from the uMkhuze River so we are hopeful of seeing a good range of birds as well as other wildlife.

The drive to the park is interesting. All of the roads into the park are dirt roads and the recent rain has made some of them tricky. The well travelled roads aren’t a problem as the mud has been compacted and it is no longer slippery but when we try to take a less travelled track it quickly becomes trickier so we take the easy option and turn around to find a better road. As we pass through villages further away from the main roads the character of the places change and we see similarities to the small villages in Mozambique and Swaziland. Buildings are more basic and cars are fewer but the people are smiling and many wave as we pass.

We drive through a pass and as we approach the park the farmed land gives way to thick bush. The camp ground is near the entrance gate but we have to drive into the centre of the park to the reception office. Just after our entry we see a large group of giraffe, we spot at least 15 but there could have been more. This is a good start. At the reception we consider our options for accommodation. The weather has changed and become quite hot and we want to make an early start in the morning so a rest hut sounds a good plan. One is available for the night so we are soon settled in and we spend the early evening sitting out the front watching nyala and impala grazing on the grass in front of us.

Paul is out before sunrise driving to the pan to take photographs in the early morning light and we are both keen to visit the pan later in the day.

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On our way we stop at a hide where a long walkway between high fences leads from the carpark to the game hide. It is a very well constructed hide and there is a waterhole directly in front of us. Unfortunately there is not a lot of activity right then and we spend a while watching turtles sun themselves on logs or the bank and occasionally one plops into the water to cool down.

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Gradually I pick out the shapes of several large buck resting in the shade and a large Nyala wanders down to the water to drink. It seems not much is likely to happen for a while so we return to the car and continue down the road to the pan. Here we can see hippos and waterbirds in the distance but the main attraction is the lovely scenery which makes a great spot for a cuppa. Our next night is spent in a safari tent where we are right in the middle of bushes with game wandering right past our tent, what a special experience.

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The weather has changed once again and it rained much of the night so we have a cool day for our drive to Kosi Bay near the border with Mozambique and at the top of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. Kosi Bay comprises four lakes linked by a network of channels. There are traditional fish traps, snorkelling opportunities, and its a very popular area for fishing. The national park camping area is on the largest of the lakes. The camp is very popular and school holidays are just finishing but some campers have already left to return home and others have been driven out by the wet weather so there are plenty of empty sites. After we set up our camp we take a walk around the camping area and view the lake but decide, like those who left earlier than planned, that the weather is not ideal for this spot so we only spend one night here before moving on.

A sandy 4WD track leads around the bottom of the lakes to the ocean and there are a number of community-run camps at Bhanga Neck where the large lake is separated from the sea by just one sand dune. We enjoy the drive and follow the signs to the Bhanga Neck Community Camp.

Some young boys point us in the right direction and soon we are met by Smiley who is looking after the place. All the sites are booked but he assures us we can camp on the adjacent property belonging to his uncle and he comes with us to show us the way and introduce us. We drive in the entrance and enter their community. A number of thatch and stone homes are on the crest of the hill, a communal ablution block is nearby and there is a large open area where we can set up our camp. Looks perfect. He also asks if we are interested in turtle watching and when we reply we are if we can go tonight he offers to speak to the guide to see if we can join a tour.

We’re ready for lunch by now but we just have to see the beach first. Its just around the corner and down the road through coastal forest to a shady parking and picnic area.

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At the top of a small dune we see a long white beach curving in each direction and the bright blue ocean in front of us. We take a walk further along the track and along the shore past some beach cottages then return along the sand paddling as we go. This is definitely the spot for a picnic lunch. After lunch Paul ventures in for a swim but the surf looks a little strong for me and then we settle back in our chairs to enjoy the afternoon. Smiley finds us there and tells us he has arranged for us to join a turtle watching tour this evening and we should meet the guide at 6.00 pm so we decide to stay where we are and have a snack before the tour and return to the camp to set up and eat dinner afterward.

We arrive at the meeting spot on time and are soon joined by a couple of other small groups. Eventually there are about ten in our group and the guide explains what we would be doing and what we should expect. We walk up the beach spotting a couple of tracks where turtles had climbed up to the dunes but then returned to the ocean without laying their eggs.

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The rain yesterday compacted the sand so it is too hard for the turtle to dig a sufficiently deep pit at that spot, she will try again tomorrow night. Further along sharp eyes spot a turtle emerging from the sea ahead of us. We are waved back and settle down on the sand to wait as we are not allowed to interfere or approach the turtle while she is on her way up the beach. If she begins laying we can then approach and watch. Its about a twenty to thirty minute wait but it certainly is no hardship as the evening is balmy and we have a full moon above us to watch the waves breaking on to the shore below us and a few stars twinkling in the sky. Scudding clouds throw shadows and shift the scene from dark to bright.

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Our wait is largely in vain as the sand is too firm and she is returning to the ocean. We are allowed to approach her now to watch her crawl back to the sea and as the waves reach her she effortlessly glides off into the ocean. A short way along the beach another turtle is returning to the ocean after another unsuccessful attempt, her efforts thwarted this time by driftwood blocking her access into the dune. A more successful effort is in progress further along the beach and the egg laying is being monitored by four university students. Our guide speaks to them and if we are unsuccessful in finding a turtle laying soon we will be able to return here.

Another turtle is spotted but yet again the damp sand has interfered with the egg laying. We’ve walked quite a long distance through soft sand by now so we are happy to return to the previous location. Its great to watch the turtle laying and an added bonus to observe the students. They are all studying different aspects of turtle life and one explains the various observations being made including measurement of a sample of the eggs, scraping of parasites and treatment of the wound, scraping cells from the shell to determine where the turtle has been and setting of camera traps to identify predators which interfere with nests and hatchlings. By the time we return to our starting point it is after 10.00 pm and we are very leg weary from trudging through the soft sand. Back at camp we quickly set up our roof top tent and have a quick snack before collapsing into bed.

This is a wonderful place and we would be happy to stay longer, particularly if we could camp at the back of the beach or stay in one of the beach cottages but we have plenty more places to see in limited time. We had thought to drive down a sandy 4WD track through coastal forest to Sodwana with an overnight stay at a camp along the way but we’ve been checking the map and realise we have missed two game parks in the vicinity. Tembe Elephant Park has a wide range of wildlife including the big 5 but there is no camping there and the accommodation is in an expensive private lodge. Ndumo Game Reserve is just a short distance further and as well as having camping and reasonably priced huts it is renowned for its wetlands and bird life.

We reach Ndumo by the middle of the day and the weather has turned hot again. There is one other couple in the campground and lots of shady trees so it is easy to find a good spot. Lunch and a dip in the pool fills in the early afternoon and mid afternoon we set out to explore planning to finish our drive with sunset at a hide overlooking one of the pans. The bush is thick which is good cover for the animals but we spot nyala, kudu, impala and bushbuck. Birds are plentiful but once again difficult to spot but we manage to identify a few different species. We visit a viewing tower set on a rise and from the platform we can see across the park. By now it is time to drive to the hide. It is a reasonable walk from the carpark but it is good to stretch the legs after yesterdays exertions, the soft sand has left a few muscles aching. The hide is well made and well situated. That is it would be well situated if there were water in the pan in front of us but the drought of the past years has left the hide several hundred metres from the nearest water. The levels here won’t rise until the dam near Jozini fills and they allow the water to run through again and that could be a long time coming. We can see bird life through our binoculars but they are too far away to observe properly or to photograph.

Ndumo is a very friendly and pleasant little park and would be well worth a visit when the pans are at their normal levels but although we had planned to spend at least part of the next day here we make an early start so we have time to visit Tembe on our way back to the coast. Access at this park is limited to 4WD vehicles as the tracks are quite sandy. We get a map and a suggested itinerary we should be able to complete in the time we have available. Our first stop is at Mahlasela Hide which is where we are most likely to see elephant. Once again the bush is thick and we spot various types of buck as we go. The view from the hide doesn’t disappoint, a pool of water is directly in front of the hide and it is a focus for animals in this area. Two elephants, a large group of waterbuck, several impala and a variety of large water birds are scattered around the waterhole and at the entrance to the hide a flock of weaver birds are building their nests. It is certainly worth stopping here for a while so I fill the coffee plunger and return to the hide so we can combine the stop with our morning cuppa. Two waterbuck fight to determine dominance but it seems obvious they are not ready to settle the matter just yet.

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We finally decide that if we want to see any more of the park we need to leave here and continue through the park to the next hide. The scenery along the way changes several times. We drive through bush, then alongside sand dunes and later skirt a large swamp before arriving at the hide. This has less to offer but the drive here was certainly worthwhile. We continue to a picnic spot for lunch and by now we have to start to think about heading back to the park entrance as we have a long drive still today so we skip the rest of the suggested itinerary and leave very content with our visit.

We retrace our route along the highways to the turnoff for Sodwana which is in central area of the iSismangaliso Wetland Park. Its an easy drive but it is still after 5.00pm when we arrive at the national park camping area. The office is closed but the security guard directs us to one of the camping areas and as the holiday season has finished we have no difficulties finding a pleasant site. There are hundreds of camp sites spread between eight camping areas here and in the peak period the whole lot are full. That is way too many people for us which is why we waited to come here until after the school holidays had finished. One of the reasons we are here is because it is one of the major spots for scuba diving in South Africa with several reefs and numerous dive sites in easy reach. Coral Divers are one of the larger dive companies here and they have been recommended to us and are situated inside the national park so after breakfast we call there to see about a dive or two for me tomorrow. They recommend getting a campsite near their dive operations and lodge which we easily arrange. Our new campsite is surrounded by bush and there are no other campers nearby. Two small red duikers bound away when they see us but we often see them and others nearby while we are here. Its drizzling rain by now so we delay setting up camp again and drive to the small collection of lodges and shops just outside the park entrance. There isn’t a lot open in this quiet period and on such a grey day but we manage to find a place with nice coffee and I sample their ‘chilli poppers’, small pastries filled with cheese and jalapeños, very tasty and warming.

I’m booked into two dives next day so I’m up early and I’m in my wetsuit and ready to go soon after 6.00am. We climb into the shuttle along with the rest of our gear for the ten minute trip to the beach where the boats launch.  It is my first dive for two and a half years so I’m a little anxious and concerned I would forget some of the basic steps of getting the gear organised. I should have realised I needn’t worry about that as there are always people willing to help out and my gear is assembled and checked and carried to the boat for me. A tractor helps push the boat out into the waves and we clamber on board, certainly not an elegant move when I do it but the young ones are much more agile. There are three other divers and the dive master in my group and there are a couple of other small groups with students completing their certification so we have a full boat load. Life jackets are distributed and have to be securely fastened, we sit on the sides with our feet under straps on the floor and we have to hold on to ropes before we take off. I wonder a little at the precautions but soon understand. The ride out through the breaking waves is fast and fun with a lot of bouncing as we crest the waves. The boat driver is well practised and after travelling along the side of a wave he finds a break and we are through the rough section.

Its an easy ride from there to the reef and at the signal we all tumble into the water, find our buddies and descend to the reef below. I take a little while to clear my ears and to descend but once down it is all pure enjoyment. Its a nice slow dive with time to take in all the corals, fish and other creatures. A large ray shelters under a rock overhang and a turtle swims lazily past before stopping to snack. We aren’t particularly deep so colours are good and the current is very mild so photographers have plenty of time to get their shots. As usual the time passes very quickly and soon our 50 minutes is up and we return to the boat for another inelegant boarding.

After another fast trip through the surf to the beach we have an hour to wait before the next dive. Time passes very easily chatting to other divers then we repeat the operation. I’m glad I booked a second dive as although I thoroughly enjoyed my first dive I realise I am much more relaxed for my second dive. The descent is much easier and I am able to control my buoyancy with ease. We are diving on the same reef but on a different site and there seems to be more fish around this dive and they entertain and delight. The strangest fish we see is a stone fish walking along the bottom and I also love spotting the tiny nudibranchs and the brightly coloured christmas tree anemones. Its has been a great morning, I’m not sure when my next dive will be as although there is diving on the south and west coasts of South Africa the water is much colder.

In my absence Paul has packed up camp and is waiting for me at the Coral Divers Resort. There is time for lunch and a shower after I return then we resume our journey south. Once again it is an easy trip back to the highway then on the freeway until we reach the turn to St Lucia. St Lucia is a pretty village surrounded by the southern section of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. Once again we arrive after the office has closed and the camping area we had planned to stay in appears to be closed for the season but the other camp ground is open and has plenty of space so we set up for the night.

The beaches here are not quite what we are after so in the morning we drive north through the national park to Cape Vidal. Its only a 35 km drive but as it is in the national park there is a 40kph speed limit and there are several loop roads to explore along the way. We have no sooner passed through the gates and over the grid into the park when we see a warthog family and zebra and while we are watching them Paul spots a jackal, a good start. The country is mainly open grassland but we also pass through sections of thick bush and see some large dunes and the bottom of the  huge Lake St Lucia. We spot other game as we travel including a male kudu with an enormous and beautiful pair of horns who strolls along the side of the road right past us. We’re looking forward to the views at Mission Rocks but the road in is closed for maintenance so we settle for a walk to the nearby lookout which gives us a good view over the ocean and the lake as well as the forests and grassland in between.

Cape Vidal is delightful with a pretty beach and some interesting rocks and a small campground set behind a dune which provides good shelter. There are more sites occupied here than at some of the larger camping areas we have been at and there are still some large groups occupying several sites each but there are enough vacant spots for us to find one we are very happy with and we are all set up before lunch. The afternoon is easily spent with a swim and a walk along the beach and Paul picks his spots for his sunrise photos next morning before we return to the camp for the evening.

The next day it is time for us to return to Durban and we take the easy route straight down the freeway arriving back at Sarah’s mid afternoon. Paul has some work to do on photos and we have a few other chores to attend to so we spend the next three days enjoying the company and comforts there before we are ready to continue our journey.

We have time to see a little more of KZN before we leave the province and we set off with trailer in tow. We visited the northern section of the Drakensberg mountains on our way to Durban and this time we are headed toward the central section. There are several interesting spots to choose between and we settle on the Monks Cowl camping area in the Champagne Valley. Much of the way we are either travelling along freeways or retracing the route we followed on our way into Durban but it is still pleasant and easy. Once we leave our previous path we are heading directly toward the mountains and the closer we get the more dramatic is the scenery. The final section is steep and winding and we crawl up some of the hills in first gear which gives us plenty of time to admire the view as we go.

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The national park campground is not large but while there are a few other campers we have plenty of spots to choose between. Many of the sites are not level and recent rain has made some of them boggy but the backdrop of the mountains and hills all around us more than compensates and we are soon setting up the trailer for the first time since we left Johannesburg. We weren’t happy with the way we organised the food and cooking items in the land cruiser on the trip we have just completed so we want to reorganise as we will soon be heading off again without the trailer. We have also just bought a huge new silver tarp to help keep the trailer tent cool so we want to try that out and work out the best way to use it so much of the next day is spent on those chores plus on Paul finishing some photography work and of course taking more photographs. We take a drive in the afternoon to enjoy the scenery in the valley and call into a few places on our way. The best of these is the Valley Bakery where we buy some croissants (and a jam doughnut) and plan to return in the morning for fresh bread.

After we leave KZN we will be visiting Lesotho for a week or so and we will leave the trailer in the Underberg area so we use Google maps to find the best way to travel between Champagne Valley and Underberg. It offers us three options, the shortest is the longest and the longest is the shortest and naturally we choose the longest, shortest route. That’s the one which will take the most time but is the least distance as it cuts across the foothills at the base of the mountains rather than heading out to the freeway, travelling south then back along the main road to Underberg.

The road surface varies from bitumen to good gravel roads to rocky and rutted roads but the views remain brilliant all along the way. We’ve left behind the towns and we travel through villages with thatch roofed round houses and waving children and all the time the Drakensberg mountains rise high on our right hand side. The road travels up and down the hills quite often so our pace is slow. They are only the foothills but for much of the day we are at altitudes higher than Australian mountains. The morning started out sunny but clouds have been building and in the early afternoon the rain starts and continues for the most of the rest of the day. The roads become muddy and by the time we are making our final descent out of the foothills and toward Underberg they are becoming slippery. Our 4WD handles the conditions well but there are plenty of mini buses and small cars sliding around and their drivers are obviously used to confronting these conditions.

With the rain and drizzle continuing we are rethinking our plan to sleep in the roof top tent overnight and looking for reasonably priced alternatives where we can leave the trailer for the next week. This is a popular tourist destination so there are lots of B&B’s in the area and after making enquiries we are directed to one in the nearby village of Himeville. This is a very pretty village which has a decided atmosphere of old England. We like the room offered at the B&B and we can leave our trailer parked securely and connected to power so its an easy decision. There are facilities for cooking available but its been a long day and a counter meal at the local pub sounds very appealing, another easy decision. The meal is all we hoped for, basic but tasty, and the atmosphere is great, a real village watering hole with lots of locals and a (not very good) band playing in the next room. Time for a good nights rest before our next adventure and the next country.

Mountain Kingdom

Malolotja Nature Reserve

Swaziland, what a jewel! The tourist guide proudly proclaims Swaziland to be “a tiny country with a big heart and warm, friendly people: a kingdom which embraces and upholds its unique and ancient traditions, carefully guarding and proudly celebrating them”. We’re not lucky enough to be here during one of the major cultural events but we feel the pride people have for their country and enjoy their welcome everywhere we go. Land-locked with South Africa on three sides and Mozambique on the other, it is only 180 km north to south and 130km east to west. Lush green mountains surround the country with flatter fertile plains in the centre. Its hard to find a spot without a magnificent view and we certainly found every camp site we stayed at and every road we drove down (or up) to be surrounded by beauty. Most people who visit Southern Africa either skip Swaziland or at most spend one or two nights here on their way through to other places. They are missing out and we have been lucky enough to have four weeks to explore some of the many facets of the country and also to relax and enjoy the laid back ambience.

We entered the country from Mozambique in the far north east at the Lomahasha/Namaacha border post. Immigration was easy and we’re given a free 30 day visa. There was no problem with the vehicle, just a small road tax. Customs was not as straight forward as we’d hoped though. We saw a sign saying no uncooked meat beyond this point but hoped it wouldn’t be enforced as we had filled our freezer in Maputo and we hadn’t expected any problems. It’s a foot and mouth control point though as Mozambique has a problem with the disease and quite rightly Swaziland want to keep it out of their country. We just wish we had known that before we shopped. We get to keep our fish and chicken but those lovely steaks, mince and pork fillets were confiscated. With our permission they could be given away so at least somebody would get to enjoy them rather than them being wasted. Oh well, there’s a shopping centre not too far away and we’ve got plenty to eat in the meantime.

Mbuluzi Nature Reserve is one of many private reserves in Swaziland and it’s our first stop in this country. It is less than half an hour from the border and we descend from the top of the Lebombo Range to reach it. We check in at the office and are warmly welcomed and given a map and information about the park and the surrounding area. The camp ground is a few kilometres from the entrance and we are the only campers at present. There are no predators in this park, it’s over 3,000 hectares but that is still too small to support any of the big five (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo) but we are delighted to see a couple of impala and zebra and about eight giraffe on the short drive to the camp.

The camp ground has a small and basic amenities block and three bomas for campers to use. These are semi-circlular reed fences about two metres high which provide privacy and a wind break. While the camping area is not large the bomas are well spread out so it feels very spacious. We’re relying on solar power here so we need a combination of shade for our comfort and sunny areas we can reach with our solar panel leads as well as the normal requirements of flat land and a pleasant view. The boundary of the park is the Dark Mbuluzi River and across the river the land rises steeply to the Lebombo Plateau. It makes a great backdrop to the view from our ‘verandah’.

There is a network of tracks throughout the park and we drive along some of them viewing the wildlife and enjoying the scenery. We see plenty more giraffe, in fact its hard to drive anywhere without seeing them and they are great to watch. Zebra, warthogs, impala, kudu, and more are also around. After the dry landscape we have been travelling through while we were in Kruger and Mozambique it is a delight to be surrounded by lush green growth. The rains have been below average here as well but it is not obvious from what we are seeing. Its hot most of the time we are here but we do get a couple of storms passing through, hopefully they will have a good wet season this summer.

On our second evening we see a giraffe just below our camp site between the river and us. He peers between branches and appears to be wondering what we are doing in his normal pathway to the thorn trees in the campground beyond us. We move slowly trying not to startle him but then we realise he is just as interested in us as we are in him and provided we don’t approach closer than about 6 metres he will happily stay where he is. Over the time we are camped here we see him almost every day and we christen him Fred.

Fred, Mbuluzi Nature Reserve

Fred, Mbuluzi Nature Reserve

The other wildlife prolific around the camp and the park are the birds. Cheery chirrups are a pleasant way to start the day and we constantly see flashes as they dart in an out of the foliage around us. Woodpeckers knock and a fish eagle calls as it flies above the river. Driving back to camp one afternoon a flock of at least 30 European Bee-eaters take dust baths on the track in front of us. Near the front gate is a small dam with trees growing over the edges. One of the trees is a favourite of the Weaver Birds and we see them weave their nests commencing from a circle of green grasses and building that out to an orb with an opening at the bottom of the nest. Within a day or two the nests turn from green to pale brown as the grass dries and the males hope their nest building skills are good enough to entice a female to join him. The tree is festooned with scores of nests but they change frequently as the unsuccessful suitors tear their nest to bits before starting again. Most of the birds are a bright yellow but occasionally a red-headed weaver appears. These are more solitary and they build their nest on a tree apart from the other weavers.

As part of our entry into this park we are able to visit two other game reserves in the area which jointly form the Lebombo Conservancy. Mlawula Reserve is a National Trust Commission Reserve and we drive the length of the park from the north gate to the south gate. They also have a camping area, it is far larger than the Mbuluzi camp but to our mind it doesn’t have the same charm. The effects of drought are more obvious here with a dry riverbed below the bird hide and dry grass throughout the camping area. There appears to be less game as well, we see a few buck but little else on our trip through. The main attraction in this park is the scenery. The park includes low lying flat lands and also hills which form part of the Lebombo Range. Walking tracks lead to waterfalls or caves although we doubt there is much water flowing over the falls at present. The road weaves between hills presenting lots of great views then it rises steeply, very steeply, up the range. We’re glad we aren’t towing the trailer as although we would probably make it, the trip would be exceedingly slow and hard on the car.

From Mlawula we drive to Hlane Royal National Park. This is one of the Big Game Parks and as well as the smaller beasts it is home to lion, leopard, rhino and elephant. Most of the larger game however are in a separate section not open to self driving and after our fantastic experiences in Kruger we do not feel the need to go on a group tour. Instead we enjoy our lunch in the restaurant overlooking a dam then follow some of the tracks through the section where we are allowed to self-drive. There is also a camping area here but we leave satisfied we are staying in the nicest camp in this area.

Hlane Royal National Park

Hlane Royal National Park

We’ve also found all of the staff at Mbuluzi to be friendly and very helpful. Tal is the Game Reserve Manager and he has given us tips and contacts for other places to stay in Swaziland and was happy for Paul to use their Internet to keep posting his photos. Mandla who works on the park reception and helped us organise where we could store the trailer is unfailingly friendly and helpful. After a stay of eight nights we pack for our next camp but because we are only planning to spend one night away and we will be passing by here after that we decide to leave our trailer at Mbuluzi securely parked in the staff housing area and we’ll collect it later.

At the top of the Lebombo Plateau which we have been gazing at every day is the community of Shewula. They operate a community camp comprising round stone rondavel huts with thatched roofs, a small camping area and a communal kitchen where you can self cater or traditional meals can be provided by the local people. We passed the turn off to it on our way down from the border post so we are re-tracing our path about 15 km then taking a steep dirt road up the mountain for another 15 km, all this to end up a couple of km in a direct line from our camp in Mbuluzi but much higher up. When we reach the camp perched on the edge of the plateau the views are all that we hoped for. We’re planning to camp using the roof top tent but out of interest we ask to see the rondavels. They are charming, and cheap, so we decide to take one of them instead. We get to choose which one we want as there are no other guests at present. We particularly like the shower which has a large open section to give a view over the escarpment but which still provides privacy. It will be nice to go to sleep looking at the thatched roof high above us instead of canvas just above our heads. Instead of electric lights we have a kerosene lamp although there is power in the communal kitchen.

Before evening we are very glad we chose to stay in a rondavel as a storm rolls in with thunder, lightning and ferocious winds. It certainly would have been a rocky night in the roof top tent. Instead we can simply appreciate the light and sound show. The sky is covered in clouds as the sun is setting but the thickness of the clouds varies and for a brief period we see patches of brilliant pinks and yellows in the midst of the dark storm clouds. Its a dramatic sight but difficult to capture on camera even if we had the cameras out ready as it only lasts a brief time and the rain is bucketing down. The communal kitchen is much appreciated, it is open on one side but we are sheltered from the winds and rain and the temperature is still very mild.

We have just finished our meal when we hear a car horn. Paul goes to investigate and returns with two young women from Johannesburg. They had booked but they arrived much later than expected and the security guard had left for the night so there was no-one to show them where they could stay. After our earlier tour of the place Paul was able to show them their options and they were able to choose one of the other empty rondavels. They had not realised this place was so isolated and had just driven up that steep and potholed dirt track in a small car expecting to be able to buy dinner here. We are able to provide them with some chicken and salad and a glass of wine so at least they don’t have to go to bed hungry.

In the calm morning we make a leisurely pack up and return to Mbuluzi to collect our trailer and to say goodbye to Tal and Mandla. We’ve shelved our initial plans to tour around the southern section of the country as the small park we were planning to visit has apparently been hit hard by drought. Instead we are heading for the centre of the country to the Ezulwini Valley and the Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary. Today’s drive is mainly through flat country but we’ll see plenty of hills on future trips. The soil looks rich and fertile, a deep red colour. Sugar cane is grown in large areas and later the land in the trip we see more varied agriculture with maize (corn) and vegetables grown both in small plots and larger fields.

Manzini is the largest city in Swaziland and used to be the country’s capital. While the capital has been moved to the cooler Mbabane, Manzini remains a busy and bustling city with far more cars and people than we have become used to. We try to park in the main section of the city so we can go for a wander around and get a feel for the place, and some lunch, but after several loops around side streets without finding anywhere to park the car and trailer we stop across the river at a modern shopping centre. It doesn’t have the atmosphere we were hoping for but at least we can use the free wifi while we eat. A spice shop near the restaurant tantalises us with its aromas while we are eating and we happily stock up our spices before leaving.

As we leave Manzini a high mountain range rises on our right, this marks the start of the Ezulwini Valley, the ‘Valley of Heaven’. Another range soon rises on our left and tucked into this valley are many of Swazi’s tourist attractions including numerous souvenir or curio shops, craft markets, the Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary and the Mantenga Nature Reserve and Falls and lots of accommodation and restaurants. We’re a little concerned it may be too busy for us so we’re not sure how long we will stay. There is a camping ground in Mlilwane and we plan to stay at least two nights but it ends up being seven. Like Mbuluzi there are no predators here and you are free to walk around as much as you like on the many walking trails. There are numerous animals here including blesbok, which I hadn’t seen before, impala, kudu, wildebeest, zebra and warthogs. What we find amazing, and beautiful, are the number of young animals, many of the babies are born while we are there. The young impala seem to have impossibly thin legs and the baby warthogs are even funnier to watch than their parents. We even see a baby croc in the dam, mum was a very impressive size.

Accommodation here is mainly in bee-hive huts but there is also a camping area. It is well serviced with a barbecues and power on every site and very large, and immaculate, amenities block and under cover area. There are great views over the slope down to the river and numerous animals wander through the camping area between the thick forest behind us and the open grazing land in front. Some nights there are a couple of other sites occupied and one night there was a whole convoy of motor homes driven by a visiting group from England but the rest of the time we have the whole camping area to ourselves so we needn’t have worried about the crowds.

A restaurant provides meals for many of the guests staying in the huts and it is very well located next to a large pool of water. We visit a couple of afternoons to enjoy the late afternoon light on the pond while we watch the many weaver birds, ibis and herons and the occasional hamerkop. A smallish croc lumbers between the birds one evening and slides into the water, the birds didn’t appear to be at all fussed by him. Lots of very large turtles pop their heads up and a huge catfish swims along with its feelers above the water, strange. One evening we have our meal there, a buffet, which was pleasant but unfortunately not up to the standard of the buffet we had in Maputo. (But it was also considerably cheaper.)

There is a lot of variety in the driving tracks around the park. Most of the animals are grazing on the open plains and are best viewed from the tracks across these plains. A couple of creeks wander through the park and some sections of the park are thick bush which would provide shelter for the game but also makes them very difficult to see. We follow a track one day and after passing through a couple of gates enclosing a large herd of roan antelope we end up on a track for overnight guests of Reilly’s lodge so we backtrack and take a different trail. This one leads up to the back of the lodge but we don’t pass any no entry signs and on our way back we pass through a beautiful patch of forest with mosses dripping off trees so that was certainly worth going the ‘wrong’ way.

A few of the tracks are 4WD only and we take a drive up the mountain track one day. It is steep on the way with a couple of slightly tricky bits and we can certainly appreciate why these tracks are closed after significant rainfall. Its a lovely drive up the mountain and the view from the saddle between two peaks is superb. What a pity we didn’t bring our thermos and coffee with us as it would have made a great place to stop for a while. We descend the other side of the mountain and that is when things get tricky. The track itself is not too bad, but the bush has grown so thickly around the track we often cannot see much at all. There are no signs of anyone else using this track recently, apart from the occasional bicycle track on the odd open section. There is certainly no room to turn around so we aren’t pleased to see a low branch down across the track. Normal vehicles would pass beneath it but our roof rack storage box and the roof top tent made things decidedly tricky. We do carry an axe, but it is back at camp in the trailer, we definitely need to learn from this experience and carry it and a small saw in the vehicle. I stand on the side step and with a bit of pushing and shoving while Paul inches forward we manage to slide beneath the branch and can continue down the hill.

We are only a short distance from the capital of Mbabane and we drive in one day to have a look around. It is certainly a very small capital, much quieter than Manzini and after a brief drive around the streets we stop at a gallery to view the art and to enjoy a coffee and cake at the attached cafe. Because we have spent so little time in town we decide to drive north to Sibebe Rock, a huge granite rock surrounded by a reserve which is popular with hikers.

After admiring the scenery we could retrace our route to Mbabane and back to camp but we decide to continue on the road we are on and follow country roads around in a loop to the Ezulwini Valley. We’re on top of a range here and hill tops stretch in all directions with dirt roads rising to the peaks then dropping to cross small streams. Small communities are scattered with houses and small farms making good use of the land. Each small community has a soccer pitch on whatever flat piece of land they can find. Often it is not much more than rough wooden posts and cross bars at the ends of a patch on the top of a hill and grazing cows appear the major means of trimming the playing field. We love the views as we drive but the trip turns out longer than we expected as some of the roads on the map have fallen into disuse and our ‘short cuts’ end up in backtracking on several occasions. The extra kilometres give us more time to admire the scenery but it would have been even better if we’d filled the fuel tank before we left town.

I had hoped to do some walking here but my energy got sapped by a spider bite which gave me a nasty reaction. I thought it was just a mosquito bite at first and by the time I figured out what it was I was starting to slowly get my energy back so I didn’t bother going to a doctor. Paul kept himself busy with taking photos of young animals and working on his computer so it wasn’t a complete waste of time.The bite is still ugly but the infection has passed and I’m feeling much better by the time we leave.

Our next destination is in the far south of the country and we are looking forward to the drive so we are very pleased to have a clear and sunny day. After returning to the outskirts of Manzini we turn south and before long we leave the central plateau behind and begin our journey through the spectacular Grand Valley. Fantastic view follows fantastic view, steep hills and deep valleys and mountain views stretching far into the distance. We’re slow going up the hills but we’re not in a hurry and the traffic isn’t too heavy and our morning coffee spot gives us plenty of time to admire the magnificent scenery.

Grand Valley Coffee Stop

Grand Valley Coffee Stop

The road leads to the border post at Mahamba but immediately before the border we turn right and drive a few kilometres to Mahamba Gorge. This is another community run chalet and camping area and it is another beautiful place to stay. We are given a warm welcome and told we can camp where we like. It is very hot when we arrive and there is not a lot of shade so we take a look at the chalets. These are built of stone but are a very different design to the rondavels at Shawula with a more modern appearance. They don’t have quite the character but the deck out the front overlooking the gorge and the kitchen in each unit are a good substitute and once again we are persuaded to take this option.

During the afternoon the weather changes and another storm rolls in, another good night to be in doors. This time the wind is not as fierce and we are able to leave the doors on to the deck open all night so we can enjoy the fresh air and views. Paul takes some early morning photographs and we take a short walk down to the river before moving on again to our next destination.

Mahamba Gorge

Mahamba Gorge

We cut across along a dirt road to another highway where we can drive north once again. Most of the way we are driving along a side track as a big new road is under construction. We assume it is to service the timber industry as there are many forestry plantations around here. Back on a main road we only have another short drive until we reach the turn where we need to leave the highway and head toward another wilderness area.

We are planning to spend the night at Khelekhele camping area which is a bush camp beside a river at the bottom of a very deep valley. Directions are sparse but it is marked on our Tracks for Africa map so we figure the GPS will lead us to the right place. We reach the place where we need to leave the dirt road and follow a track down to the river. There are two possible tracks but neither look quite right so we ask a guy walking nearby. His English is limited but obviously much better than our knowledge of any of the other languages he speaks. We manage to communicate where we are trying to go and he offers to come with us to show us the way as there are a couple of gates to go through. There end up being four gates as we are passing through what appears to be private properties. He tells us the names of each of the families who live along the track, this is obviously a small and well knit community. Kids wave as we pass and their parents work in their fields. There were two different routes on our map to reach the river and it appears the one we were trying to find is no longer in use so he is taking us on a short cut to reach the other track.

Once through the final gate he assures us we can camp by the river and leaves us to continue his afternoon. We follow the now rough track down toward the river. Cattle are grazing in the scrub and when we finally reach the river we find two vehicles and a group of locals including half a dozen children and their parents as well as quite a few more cows. They indicate where we can camp but after reaching the area we decide camping amongst cattle is not what we want. Derelict buildings show this used to be a managed camping area but it is obviously no longer maintained. It appears our Tracks for Africa app needs updating. This has been by far the roughest track we have taken the trailer over so it has been a good test and the Land Cruiser came through with flying colours, but I must admit I was very glad it was Paul driving and not me.

Time for Plan B. After a long slow haul up from the bottom of the valley we return to the main road, up the usable side road rather than through the private properties, and continue north. There are no camping spots or caravan parks nearby so we decide to look for alternate accommodation for the night. Foresters Arms Hotel is on our road and has a good write up so we decide to try that out.

It is late afternoon when we arrive at the hotel which is nestled in a patch of forest in the middle of old pine plantations. The hotel has been here for more than a century and has obviously been a place of respite for people escaping from the city of Mbabane, less than an hour away. The buildings are beautifully maintained and additional accommodation maintains the old world ‘colonial’ style. We have a very pleasant room looking over the lush green lawn and across the pool to the forest beyond. It is drizzling and quite cool so we aren’t tempted to have a swim but if we had more time the sauna would have been a much bigger temptation.

After a pre-dinner drink in the cozy bar we move to the restaurant where the owner explains the menu. Two starters are followed by four main courses and two desserts and there is also a central table with home baked breads, salads and cheeses. The dishes are small so we are welcome to have as many selections from each course as we wish, we could have the whole lot if we wanted. Everything is presented beautifully and it is lovely to have small portions of different offerings but we are full before we have sampled half the menu and after sharing one of the desserts, with me having all bar one mouthful, we retire to the room, weary but relaxed.

Paul is up early to take photos in the mist and drizzling rain. It looks like we will have a wet drive today. Breakfast is included in the room rate and once again there are plenty of choices of cooked meals as well as a buffet for cereals, fruit and breads. We are certainly well fed and rested before we set off to our next destination.

We have another week to spend in Swaziland and we have saved the north west section of the country for this time. This is where the mountains are the highest and there are several spots we definitely want to visit. We make a small detour from our route to call into Ngwenya Glass where they make both functional and decorative glassware. The work is beautiful, it is a shame it is a weekend as they are not running the furnace so we miss the opportunity to watch the glass being blown.

Malolotja Nature Reserve is our next stop. We had planned to stay here but when we reach the camping area the mist is so thick we can barely see past the bonnet of the car, not ideal sightseeing weather. This is one of the highest areas so maybe it will be clearer at other places and we can return here another time. Continuing on we descend into a valley and take the road to Maguga Dam. The water level is very low so it is not as scenic as it could be but at least we are below the mist and we decide to spend two nights here and make some headway with our writing and processing of photographs.

Maguga Dam

Maguga Dam

Further north is the town of Piggs Peak. Tal, from Mbuluzi Nature Reserve, has given us a contact for camping in this area. Tommy Stephens has a property about ten kilometres north of the town on the Phophonyane River which is now a conservancy and he offers camping beside the river. We meet him at the nearby Peak Craft Centre where his wife operates a shop which sells fine woven products. The camp site is delightful, a bubbling creek is lined by trees which provide deep shade. A seating area with a timber deck and an undercover area with a fridge and power point is ours to use and there is a small block with toilets and a hot shower. While we are here we will have sole use of the area and we settle in happily prepared to spend the next week here. Paul is able to set up his computer in a cool and protected area and apart from one very stormy and windy evening we cook and spend our leisure time on the deck just using our camper trailer for sleeping.

It is such a delightful place to stay it is hard to tear ourselves away but there are places we definitely need to visit while we are here. One visit is to the town of Bulembu which is high in the mountains on the border with South Africa. It is only about 20 km from Piggs Peak but it is a dirt road and quite potholed in sections. Much of the surrounding area is taken up by tree plantations but there are still some areas of local farming and there are plenty of tall peaks which remain in their natural state. The town of Bulembu was established as a mining town but apart from a few very small operations the mining has ceased. If it were not for the forestry operations the town would have completely died but it is neat and well maintained even though there are many unoccupied houses. The houses are set in rows along the side of the hill and many are painted in different colours, very pretty.

On our way back to Piggs Peak we explore one of the side tracks which head deeper into the mountains. We are about to drive up one track when a young guy by the side of the track approaches us to have a chat. He is a watchman for the radio tower up the track and offers to accompany us to the end of the track. Here we find an abandoned army camp right on the border with South Africa. It is used as a temporary shelter for some of the forestry workers but no-one is around when we arrive. We take a walk across the grass and a faint line marks the border, we are now in South Africa. One peak rises above us but we are above many of the other peaks and can see for many kilometres, fantastic!

Swaziland, South Africa Border near Bulembu

Swaziland, South Africa Border near Bulembu

Another outing is to the nearby Phophonyane Falls Nature Reserve. There is a lovely lodge nestled into the side of the hill here, but unfortunately no camping. We meet the owner, Rod, as we are about to set off on a walk and we chat about his life and the operations of the lodge. He recommends crossing the border back into South Africa at Bulembu rather than the busy border post on the main highway which we had been planning to use. As well as magnificent scenery we will be more likely to get a longer entry permit into South Africa here.

The walk down to the Phophonyane falls is steep but not too far or too hard. My bout with the spider bite means I’m pretty unfit as I haven’t done any walking for quite a while. We return to the lodge and after a coffee Paul heads off for another walk and more photography but I’m ready for a rest and relax in the shade enjoying the magnificent views from beside the pool.

Phophonyane Falls

Phophonyane Falls

We had planned to return to Malolotja and spend a night there on our way out of the country but based on Rod’s advice we will leave from Bulembu so we decide to visit Malolotja on a day trip. Because we aren’t travelling via Maguga Dam we follow the main road directly to Malolotja. We begin amongst the mountains near Piggs Peak then cross a very wide valley with the Nkomati River flowing through the centre. This river commences in the highlands of South Africa as the Komati River before entering Swaziland where it passes through Malolotja to feed the Maguga Dam and eventually returns to South Africa and then flows into Mozambique where it changes name once again to become the Rio Incomati.

At Malolotja we are given a map of the park and we set out to explore. There are lots of walking tracks here but they are all fairly long and we don’t have the time today so we confine our exploration to driving. We head for one of the view points but stop at the picnic site on the way and we are blown away by the views from there. After coffee, and many photos, we continue on and take a 4WD track to the Nkmomati Viewpoint. The scenery along the way is great and the views from the end are even better. From here we can easily see across the mountains into South Africa. We really feel like we are on the roof of the the world. When we can tear our eyes away from the mountain views we are delighted by the wildflowers scattered all around us. We follow this up with another drive and another viewpoint then it is time to make the return journey to our camp by the river for our final night in Swaziland.

The first part of drive back to Johannesburg is through the mountains and will be slow and we don’t know how long we will need at the border post. After the mountains we will still have a long distance to cover so we need to make an early start. We retrace the scenic drive from a few days ago and reach Bulembu before the border post opens so we have time for breakfast in a park in the town. We were told by the South African Consulate in Maputo that as we had already had a three month entry permit for South Africa we would only receive a seven day transit visa unless we returned to our country of residence first. Obviously a short trip back to Australia is prohibitive so we are hoping we will get a sympathetic border control officer otherwise it is going to be a very short visit, just long enough for Christmas in Johannesburg with Paul’s Mum and sister then a dash for the border with Namibia. At the South African border post we are initially told we can only get the seven day transit visa but after we explain how much more of the country we want to explore he leaves us to make more enquiries. After a twenty minute wait he returns and stamps our passports for a three month stay, great news. We assume he must have had to ring for an exemption of the normal rules, most helpful of him and certainly no way would we have got this good a result if we had crossed at a busy border post.

After such a good start to the day our journey continues well and we are treated to even more amazing views along the way. We travel through forests, both natural and plantation, amongst more peaks until we finally descend to the pretty town of Barberton. We have more ranges to cross but none as high or steep as those we have left behind . We stay off the freeways and make the return journey through rural towns and finally reach Sue’s home by mid afternoon. We are in Johannesburg for Christmas and a few days either side and then we will be back on the road to make the best use of our three month entry permit.

Southern Mozambique

Maputo Municipal Market

Maputo Municipal Market

South Africa has been a pretty easy place to travel around with lots of similarities to Australia once you get used to the need for a higher level of security. While there are seven national languages, English is widely spoken and almost all signs are in English. There are plenty of supermarkets carrying a good range of food including most of the things we are used to buying. Good cheeses and hams are hard to come by but then there are heaps of good wines at very good prices and meat is also much cheaper than in Australia. Loads of information is available for tourists and travellers and it is very easy to get to wherever you want to go on the ample freeways, highways and good linking roads. So all in all a pretty easy start to our African odyssey.

Mozambique offers a whole lot of different experiences. It stretches almost 3,000 km along the Pacific Ocean and most of the country is low lying (with accompanying problems with malaria) but it rises up to mountain ranges along several western borders. It is crossed by two major rivers, the Limpopo and the Zambezi, and has 200 km of Lake Malawi coastline in the north. There are still problems between various factions in the north of the country and parts of the highway need to be travelled in convoy together with army vehicles but because we wanted to be back in Johannesburg for Christmas and didn’t want to rush too much we chose to cover just a small part of the country in the far south where it is all pretty safe. Hopefully there will be an opportunity to see more of Mozambique on another stage of our travels, especially the far northern coastline. There is a lot of poverty and corruption and it was essential to keep the car and trailer properly locked up and make sure they were in a secure spot before leaving them. We had been warned that the police are keen to dish out fines for real or possibly imagined infringements so we make sure to drive well under limits, smile and be patient and courteous and we have no problems. Portuguese is the national language although lots of African dialects are spoken as well and neither of us managed to remember much more than please and thank you so that meant a lot of smiling and gesturing and hoping there were some English speakers around.

The trip across the country from the top of Kruger National Park in South Africa to the Indian Ocean at Vilanculos was great (see our blog post ‘Across Mozambique’) and a real eye opener with lots of villages and people along the often rough and dusty roads. Vilanculos sounded great in the guides but it doesn’t deliver what we were looking for. Its main drawcard is the offshore islands but they are expensive to visit and very expensive to stay on. After one night on the way across the country and one night in Vilanculos we are ahead of schedule but very weary and keen to find a spot to stop and prop for a week.

Leaving Vilanculos we turn south along the highway toward the capital city of Maputo. This highway is the major route between Maputo in the south, right up along the coast to the border with Tanzania in the north but it has a vastly different feel to major highways in Australia. The road surface is good but there is no need for more than one lane in each direction as vehicle traffic is much, much less. There are a few trucks, a few passenger vehicles and quite a few vehicles ferrying people from one village to the next and they drop off and pick up at frequent spots along the way. These are generally old ‘people movers’ or mini-buses packed way beyond their makers intentions or ‘utes’ with people crammed into the back. It sure would be hot in the back without any shade whatsoever. Because they are so overloaded and the engines have obviously been suffering from too much weight for too many years and also to let the driver keep a lookout out for more potential passengers, these vehicles tend to travel even slower than we do and will suddenly slow down or swerve to the edge of the road. It is just as well the minimal traffic makes overtaking very easy. We often pass speed cameras on the edges of villages and towns but we are vigilant about watching the speedo and have no problems with them. Early on in the journey we are pulled over for vehicle checks a couple of times and the main purpose appears to be to get some small amount of money or some food or cold drinks but we just continue smiling and being patient and courteous and showing we are happy for them to check whatever they like and they quickly lose interest. Later in the trip the checks seem to be more genuine as we see quite a few of the old buses being properly checked for safety and there were also licence and registration checks at various spots.

The majority of movement on the highway is along the edges with people walking quite long distances to reach their destinations. We don’t manage to work out what the school schedule is as we often see crowds of school children leaving their school grounds and walking to the next village. It is often in the middle of the day so it looks like they start early before it gets too hot and classes last just half the day. Instead of large scale agriculture or forestry the villagers produce whatever they can from their small plots or the bush to make some money. A pile of firewood or sacks of charcoal, or timber cut to length for house construction, or a stand with some fruit or vegetables, or some wooden bowls for grinding maize are placed beside the road at the edge of the villagers properties. Even a sack of small rocks can be sold as one method of constructing houses is to use timber bearers, rocks and mud then thatch the roof with long grasses or palm leaves or use some corrugated iron. Sometimes there is a hopeful seller to collect money but often they are unattended and as there are no signs we wonder how payment is arranged. Perhaps someone is watching from a nearby house and will appear as soon as a vehicle stops. Charcoal and some of the timber appears to be put out ready for collection by truck but otherwise there is no middleman, just direct sales from producer to consumer. Each village, no matter how small, has a number of stalls displaying crops grown locally or other goods available for sale and there are always people sitting or standing around. Some places are quite busy and others are very small but in all cases there seem to be far more people trying to sell than potential customers with money to spend. Occasionally we pass through bigger towns with more buildings including service stations, an ATM or two and the perennial Vodacom stalls and shops. There are several other telecom companies here but Vodacom has succeeded in its marketing as every store has queues of people filling in forms outside the shops then filtering inside.

We break our journey south for considerably longer than we anticipate with a stay of two and a half weeks at Morrungulo which is just north of the town of Massinga (see our blog ‘Time Out in Paradise’). When we finally leave Morrungulo we feel relaxed, refreshed and ready for more adventures. Our first stop of the day is  in the town of Maxixe (pronounced ma-sheesh) which is across a gulf from the historic town of Inhambane which is located at the top of a peninsula. We stop for two reasons. Although there was a supermarket in Massinga they only carry an extremely limited and poor quality range of meat and we were directed to a supermarket here which has better meat. The other reason was to check out the camping here as we are considering leaving the car and trailer here and visiting Inhambane by ferry or dhow. Even though we have been given very clear directions we still end up driving around the town a couple of times before we find the supermarket. It looks nothing like the supermarkets we are used to and the range of supermarket goods and fruit and vegetables are very limited. They do have good meat though and we leave with some very nice steak and some OK chicken and sausage.  After watching the very slow loading of the ferry taking people across the gulf and observing that no dhows are able to cross the gulf against the strong wind we decide to drive to Inhambane, a 27 km trip south to the bottom of the gulf then a similar distance north again to reach the town.

Inhambane is one of the oldest settlements along the coast having been used as a trading post and port for at least ten centuries. Early trade was in textiles, then ivory and later slaves but when the slave trade was abolished the town began to decline in importance and size so now it is a sleepy tree-lined place with many old buildings of various heritage and a pretty setting beside the water. There is no camping in or near the town itself and most tourists stay at one of the resorts or settlements along the ocean beaches. The nearest is Tofo  which is, for us, more than 30 minutes away and after our fabulous time on the coast at Morrungulo we don’t need another beach fix but would prefer to spend our time in the historic town so we decided to look for lodgings instead of camping.

Inhambane ruins

Inhambane ruins

The first place we visit is just a couple of hundred metres past the ferry terminal on the water front so it is nice and close to walk into the main part of the town. They have nobody else staying at the time and there is secure parking out the back so we end up with a pleasant room at the front overlooking the water. The shared bathroom isn’t a problem even though the drought means water is often delivered via a large bucket rather than through the water pipes and the very friendly small bar and restaurant downstairs is a bonus. All this for the princely sum of 1200 Mt, or just over $20 per night.

The bar is quiet when we arrive with just a couple of locals in for a late lunch and a beer so we take a seat at a table with shade and a view over the gulf across to Maxixe and it is very easy for us to relax with a cold local beer (50 MT or about 85 cents for 500 ml) and some snacks to see us through until the evening. We also have a meal here on another evening so we can try out their Mapata, a stew of cassava leaves and chicken served with rice. Nice but a bit bland is our verdict. The bar is definitely a locals hangout though and at the weekend the afternoon trade is strong with lots of smiling guys enjoying a Saturday afternoon beer or two. We get broad smiles and welcomes as we pass through the bar and most people leave before dinner so we enjoy the atmosphere and have no problems with late night noise.

We end up staying in Inhambane for three nights and as well as wandering around the town enjoying the old buildings we visit the local market and drive out to the coastal resort village of Tofo. The market in Inhambane has a  huge range of goods to supply almost everything a local could want as well as a section with curios and souvenirs for the occasional tourists (us). As always the pressure to buy makes it more difficult to look as any show of interest increases the pestering factor tenfold. It’s also very difficult to work out the real value of goods as haggling is expected and neither of us is particularly skilled in that art. I do spot a piece of fabric I would like as a tablecloth and we buy it after some bartering but I still have no idea if we paid a fair price or were completely overcharged. The fruit and vegetables are great, with a wide range and fixed but very reasonable prices so we had far more success in that section of the market and leave with enough to keep us going for quite a while.

Tofo is a complete contrast. In Inhambane we saw very few other tourists yet in this settlement the majority of people we see are fairly well-heeled tourists enjoying the beach resort holiday. We take advantage of the free wifi at one of the resorts while we have a delicious brunch overlooking the white sandy bay. Its ‘postcard pretty’ and a good base for boat trips out to reefs to scuba dive or snorkel. Beautiful and ideal for some but while we agree we could be happy soaking up the atmosphere for a few days we are generally much more content in the bush or at a basic camping ground and we are loving the atmosphere among the locals at our lodging back in town. Locals in Tofo are either working in the resorts or trying to drum up business from the few tourists around at present. Mozambique tourism is certainly suffering from the drought and the reports of violence even though we are not in an area that is affected in any way.

Brunch at Tofo

Brunch at Tofo

From Inhambane we have over 450 km to travel to reach Maputo. Because we travel so slowly we would normally break the drive and stop for a night along the way but we struggled to find anywhere midway which did not require a significant detour from the highway on sandy tracks or which received better than poor reviews on Trip Advisor so we decide to book a place in Maputo and make an early start to reach there in one day. The trip along the highway is uneventful with towns becoming bigger and population density increasing as we go. It is Sunday so we miss the worst of the traffic but there is still far more than we have become accustomed to. We are going to be staying at a guesthouse in a suburb on the western side of the city and Google Maps offers a choice of travelling straight down the main highway to the city edge then taking a toll freeway a short distance to the suburb we need or leaving the highway earlier and cutting straight down to our destination along minor roads. Naturally we choose the latter but that sure turns out to be a mistake. Google maps obviously has very little real information about the minor roads here as the one we try to follow begins as a muddy track and then deteriorates. We manage to travel a few kilometres along the track at an average speed of 5 kph but then it appears to get even narrower. There are locals all around looking very puzzled to see us towing a trailer past their houses and eventually we stop to find out if we can get through. With our total lack of Portuguese and their lack of English we use sign language to learn that the suburb we are going to can no longer be reached by this road. In fact we cannot go any further south at all and have to back the car and trailer up along the very narrow track to the last side track. With lots of help from one of the locals we make it around safely and return to the tar road. Definitely no more trips down dirt roads around Maputo.

I breath a great sigh of relief when we make it back on to the bitumen and it is easy sailing down the highway and along the freeway. We quickly find the correct exit from the freeway and follow another major road to the suburb we are headed to. We are totally relying on Google maps now as we booked the accommodation on the internet and we haven’t been given any specific travel directions other than the google map location. The side roads have no name posts and when it is time to turn off the main road we aren’t overly happy to see a dirt road but at least this one is reasonably wide and there is no mud, other than in small patches that is. When we arrive at the supposed location there is a school and no signs nearby that we can recognise. After circling the block a couple of times we ask some locals. They haven’t heard of the place but we manage to get some instructions to a place few streets away. This is at least another guest house but unfortunately not the one we are looking for and they haven’t heard of the one we want either. By now we have checked some other booking sites on the internet and one has the property located a couple of blocks away so we figure we should try that next. No signs out the front here either but Paul rings the bell and thankfully we have arrived at the right place at last and we can park out the back.

There was some confusion about our booking but it is eventually resolved and the owners come around and make us very welcome. The place has not been open as a guesthouse for very long and work is still underway to increase the secure parking out the front, hence no sign. (It will have been done by now.) There are also some finishing touches to be completed inside and they hadn’t expected any guests this week while the work was being done but that message got lost somewhere. They kindly put off the noisy parts of the work while we are there but by now I am sure it is a very comfortable spot to stay. As well as double rooms with everything we could want there are suites, a kitchen and lounge, swimming pool, pool table and recreation room. We are very comfortable and extend our stay to three nights and would certainly be happy to recommend the Gardens Guesthouse in Matola for anyone visiting Maputo.

It is only a ten minute drive into the city and we make the trip in a couple of times plus an extra trip for Paul before the sun rises one morning. It’s a busy, grubby, chaotic city but we enjoy our visits. Lots of the old buildings are in one area just above the port so it is easy to wander around them and through a very pleasant botanic garden there. As well as the official older buildings which are well maintained there are derelict ruins and very basic housing blocks which are in stark contrast to brand new skyscrapers. The Art Gallery is quite small but as well as the permanent exhibition it has an interesting temporary exhibition which we enjoy. Most of the permanent display is fairly recent, from the 60s on. We think that local art work probably wasn’t valued or collected by the government until after the Portuguese bailed out in the 70s.

The main food market is a bit sterile but there are numerous street markets which make up for that. The embassies are all clustered together in the newer section of the city and a huge shopping centre has been built near the port and another along the beach front. We visit a very interesting art and craft market late on our second afternoon and we wish we had found it earlier. There are a lot of stalls spread through some pleasant gardens, with a lovely cafe / restaurant in the centre, we even loved the art work on the rubbish bins. We buy a beautiful batik wall hanging there and had we more money on us and more time available we would probably have bought more but we are running our local currency down before leaving the country as it is useless anywhere else.

We splurge on our last evening meal in Mozambique and eat at a Portuguese restaurant called The Taverna. They have a delicious buffet as an option and it looked just too good to pass up so for the first time since we arrived in Africa we had our fill of superb cold meats and cheeses then followed them up with plates of Portuguese specialties. Delicious and neither of us was in any state to even consider dessert.

It is finally time to move on and leave Mozambique. From Maputo it is an easy run along main roads with a gentle climb up to the border post with Swaziland at Namaacha, time for yet another adventure!