Wine, Wine, and More Wine

Day 86: Stellenbosch, South Africa
Thursday night in Sesriem, Namibia was a cold and windy one – all night, sand blew in through the canvas of the tent, and I tucked my head inside my sleeping bag for shelter. Friday morning we got off to an early start, leaving at 6:00 for one of the largest canyons in the world, Fish River Canyon in the far south of Namibia. It took us over ten hours on dusty roads to reach the canyon, stopping briefly in the tiny town of Helmeringhausen and again for lunch on the side of the road. It was such a long drive day that we only had about an hour at the canyon before sunset, so we did a short hike along the rim. We were prepared for our last bush camp of the trip, but Carol surprised us, and we instead pulled into a nice campsite called Cañon Roadhouse. Needless to say, we were a bit too excited, given that we were still sleeping in tents! There was a great restaurant at the campsite that was designed like an old western American roadside diner, except with German instead of American vintage memorabilia. The food was not American diner food either, but it was fantastic – I had butternut soup, chicken schnitzel with pineapple sauce, and pavlova for dessert.

Sitting on the edge of Fish River Canyon, Namibia
Sitting on the edge of Fish River Canyon, Namibia

Fish River Canyon, Namibia © Matt Prater
Fish River Canyon, Namibia
Quiver tree, Fish River Canyon, Namibia © Matt Prater
A quiver tree, or kokerboom (Aloe dichotoma), at Fish River Canyon, Namibia

We suffered yet another chilly night, but awoke Saturday excited as children on Christmas morning: we were finally crossing the border into South Africa today! It was our final destination, and those of us on the Oasis truck since the very beginning – Tom, Jude, Beth, and myself – had been anticipating it for ten weeks. It took us three hours to get there, and we were greeted by a proper border crossing that had actual printed signs and even x-ray machines. Granted, they don't always x-ray bags at the border, but South Africa is stepping up security because of the upcoming World Cup. An hour later, we were finally in South Africa and on our way through the vast Northern Cape province toward Cape Town. We stopped in the town of Springbok for lunch at KFC and arrived at the Highlanders campsite near Trawal at 6:30. We set up our tents for the last time on a beautiful flat patch of soft grass, and then we made our way to the bar for dinner and wine tasting. South Africa is internationally famous for its wines that are produced around the Cape region, and it was fitting to be introduced to some of it on our very first night in the country. We tasted two whites, two reds, a rosé, a sparkling wine, and a specialty of Highlanders, their African Ruby Vermouth. My favorite was the Pinotage, a red wine unique to South Africa. It is a special cross between Pinot noir and Hermitage (Cinsaut) grapes that was specifically bred to thrive in African soil.

Vineyard, Western Cape, South Africa © Matt Prater
Vineyard in the Western Cape, South Africa

Sunday we drove past postcard-beautiful vineyards nestled against craggy mountains as we made our way to Stellenbosch, a university town in the Cape Winelands that is the epicenter of the South African wine industry. We arrived in the early afternoon, which gave us enough time to stroll the streets of this picturesque little town brimming with Cape Dutch style architecture. We ate lunch at Mugg & Bean, a South African restaurant chain influenced by American coffee shops. We sat outside and enjoyed the crisp autumn weather while we ate – the atmosphere is reminiscent of a New England college town, except the students here speak mostly Afrikaans. In fact, the University of Stellenbosch is one of the last universities left in South Africa that offers a curriculum in Afrikaans.

Yesterday a group of us left mid-morning for an extended wine tasting tour around the region, visiting four wineries. Our first stop was Simonsig, where we started our tour by visiting the wine production facilities and learning how different types of wine are made. We then made our way to an outside patio area where we tasted five wines produced at Simonsig. With each wine, the glass was filled about one to two finger widths. Spitting is rude – that would be a waste of good wine!

The next winery was Fairview, where I tried six wines. This time, there were a few separate wine bars where you could make your own selections. The best part about Fairview was the fantastic cheese bar, which I visited a couple of times in between my wine tasting.

Wine bottles, Fairview wine & cheese estate, Stellenbosh, South Africa © Matt Prater
Wine bottles at Fairview wine & cheese estate, Stellenbosh, South Africa
Wine production equipment, Fairview wine & cheese estate, Stellenbosh, South Africa © Matt Prater
Wine production equipment at Fairview wine & cheese estate, Stellenbosh, South Africa

After eleven wines in the morning, I was feeling good, and it was off to the charming town of Franschhoek for lunch. I enjoyed bobotie – a popular South African minced meat curry dish originating from the Dutch East India Company colonies in Indonesia – and a glass of red wine, of course. After lunch we visited two more wineries – Dieu Donné and Boschendal – where I tasted another eleven wines. After tasting 23 wines today – drinking the equivalent of one and a half bottles – I slept most of the way back to Stellenbosch, where we were dropped off at our appropriately named hostel, Stumble Inn. Even though I drank a lot more than I'm used to, I didn't feel too drunk since the wine tasting was spread out over the course of the day.

Manor house, Boschendal wine estate, Franschhoek, South Africa © Matt Prater
The Cape Dutch style manor house, built in 1812, at Boschendal wine estate near Franschhoek, South Africa

Smoking a Cuban cigar at Cubana, Stellenbosch, South Africa
Smoking a Cuban cigar at Cubana in Stellenbosch, South Africa
I took a break at the hostel for a little while, and then Tom, Jude, and a few others convinced me to go bar hopping. After a couple of drinks, we made our way to a trendy-looking Cuban joint called Cubana, where I couldn't pass up the opportunity to try a genuine Cuban cigar, which is illegal in the United States due to the embargo against Cuba. I knew it would be disgusting, but if I was ever going to try a cigar, I figured it should be a Cuban. I never really got the hang of the technique for smoking it, and soon we ordered a shisha, also known as a hooka. This is a Middle Eastern water pipe where the smoke from flavored tobacco is filtered through water and smoked through an attached hose. I tried smoking a shisha for the first time in Egypt and thought it was smooth and actually enjoyable, unlike cigarettes or cigars.

After Cubana, we ordered take-away from KFC and ate at an upper-level patio at another bar, where we enjoyed a few more drinks. As the evening wore on, the music pumping from a club below began to get louder as the place packed full of Afrikaner university students. Inside, seizure-inducing strobe lights illuminated the dancing crowd in stop-motion flashes. I stayed at the club until about four in the morning, when it was still packed with people. I didn't drink in those last few hours, and I must have sobered up before going to bed. Miraculously, I don't have a hangover this morning. I don't think I've ever before consumed as much alcohol in one day as I did yesterday, but it was a blast. Being one of the last days with the fantastic friends I've made on this adventure with Oasis, it's a day I'll never forget.

Sand, Sand, and More Sand

Day 81: Sesriem / Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia
We had an early start today, leaving Swakopmund at 6:00 and driving seven hours into the vast Namib-Naukluft National Park in the middle of the Namib Desert – this is the oldest desert on Earth and home to some of its highest sand dunes. On the way, we stopped at the Tropic of Capricorn, thus having driven through the entire southern half of the tropics since leaving the equator in Uganda. We also stopped at Solitaire, a fitting name for this dusty roadside stop decorated with abandoned antique cars – it feels like a place that could be on Route 66 in the States. As we neared Sossusvlei, sand and dust blew in through the open sides of the truck, coating everything in a thin pale layer. My hair felt thick with sand, and the floor of the truck was yellow-white with gritty grime that had mixed with the mud tracked in from our shoes.

TITLE © Matt Prater
TITLE © Matt Prater

We ate lunch in the park and then jumped into the back of a truck that would take us to Sossusvlei, a famous dry clay pan featured on many of the glossy travel brochures of Namibia. One fast, bumpy, terrifying ride later we arrived at our destination. Our guide was a very informative local who knows everything there is to know about the Namib Desert. He told us a geological history of the area, explaining how the winds shape the dunes. The intense orange color of the dunes is due to their age: over time, iron in the sand oxidizes and turns the dunes a rusty color. Our guide demonstrated this high iron content by sifting a magnet through the sand and pulling away clumps of iron. He showed us unique methods for finding water, and he identified which critters could kill you and which ones you could eat. As we painstakingly trudged through the soft sand, we ruined the perfect wind-shaped ripples with our shoes.

Sand dunes at Sossusvlei, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia © Matt Prater
Sand dunes at Sossusvlei in Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia

Sand dune at Sossusvlei, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia © Matt Prater
Sand dune at Sossusvlei in Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia
Ripples in sand at Sossusvlei, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia © Matt Prater
Ripples in the sand at Sossusvlei in Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia

Dead Vlei, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia © Matt Prater
The Dead Vlei in Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia
We eventually began to climb one of the dunes, and at the top was a haunting and desolate view of the Dead Vlei. This is another white clay pan populated only by the remnants of dead acacia trees. Long ago, the nearby Tsauchab River flooded, creating a lush area for acacia trees to thrive. As the climate grew drier, the advancing dunes cut off all access to water, and the trees died. The sun-scorched skeletons of these trees are thought to be 900 years old, and the bone-dry climate has prevented the wood from decomposing. The Dead Vlei is three quarters of a mile across, but from a distance it looks like it could be crossed on foot in five minutes. Scale is deceiving in this land of crystal-clear air and proportion-warping sand dunes.

Dead acacia trees in Dead Vlei, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia © Matt Prater
Sun-scorched skeletons of acacia trees, possibly 900 years old, in the Dead Vlei in Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia

Dead acacia trees in Dead Vlei, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia © Matt Prater
Two dead acacia trees are dwarfed by the sand dunes surrounding the Dead Vlei in Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.
Dead acacia tree in Dead Vlei, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia © Matt Prater
A dead acacia tree is silhouetted by the sun in the Dead Vlei in Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.

After our tour of the Dead Vlei, we returned to the truck and journeyed to Dune 45, which rises to a height of 550 feet. The idea was to climb the dune and watch the sunset from the top. Yet again, my perspective of the sheer size of the dune was skewed, as it did not seem very high at all. As I started climbing up the crest of the dune, each step grew more difficult as I labored through the thick, soft sand. The further I climbed, the larger the dune seemed to grow. I finally made it to the peak, where the razor-sharp spine of the dune snaked downward and off into the distance. After the sun sank below the horizon, I descended the dune – this was a much easier task, as I could almost slip-slide my way back down in the loose sand. Finally, we made the short, dark drive to our campsite at the nearby town of Sesriem.

Climbers on Dune 45, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia © Matt Prater
Barely-visible climbers ascend Dune 45 at sunset, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia

Crest of Dune 45, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia © Matt Prater
The crest of Dune 45 at sunset, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia
Sitting on top of Dune 45, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia © Matt Prater
Sitting on top of Dune 45 at sunset, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia

10,000 Feet Above Swakopmund

Day 80: Swakopmund, Namibia
Monday we drove three hours from Spitzkoppe to Namibia's coastal adrenaline center of Swakopmund, where the much-anticipated skydive was to take place that day! Namibia was a German colony, and Swakopmund could just as easily be a town in Germany, were it not for the sand dunes along the desolate coastline. This is easily the most developed town I have seen anywhere in Africa so far, and its streets are packed with German cafés, fancy restaurants, bookshops, and small boutiques. After checking into our hostel – no camping here! – the first order of business was to visit the KFC, the first American fast food chain I've seen in Africa – I haven't even seen a McDonald's yet! I never eat at KFC at home, but it was great to finally enjoy some good quality chicken, which can sometimes be a rarity in Africa.

Aerial view of Swakopmund, Namibia
Aerial view of Swakopmund, Namibia – © Ground Rush Adventures

After lunch, those of us who were skydiving had to hurry over to Ground Rush Adventures and fill out our paperwork. After signing our lives away, we piled in a jeep and headed to the vast, flat desert outside of town. After a short briefing on what to expect when tandem skydiving, they called the first pair – Mark and Ben – to get fitted into their jumpsuits and harnesses. Two jumpers at a time go in the plane, each with an instructor who will take care of all the technical aspects of the jump. The jumpers were soon suited up and ready to go, and they walked the long walk to the small plane. It takes twenty minutes of a spiraled ascent to reach 10,000 feet. Once the plane is positioned directly over the landing zone, the pilot slows the engines a bit and tilts the nose of the plane upwards slightly – the plane is only a silvery speck at that altitude when viewed from the ground. When we heard the sound of the engines change, we knew to start looking for the jumpers. The first one appeared as a dark dot flying silently in a straight line behind the plane. The second jumper appeared a few seconds later. The dots slowly grew a bit larger, and the parachutes opened about halfway down. They seemed to spring upwards a long distance when the air filled the parachutes. Gliding gracefully towards the Earth, they spiraled every once in a while to speed the descent. When they were ready to land, the jumper would lift his legs and the instructor would touch down, aided by several helpers on the ground to slow the pair down.

The whole thing looked so graceful and silent when viewed from the ground, but I was growing more nervous as the time for my jump neared, even though both Mark and Ben said the experience was fantastic. The order of the jumpers was unknown to us, so every time they prepared to call the next pair, I experienced a surge of both nervousness and excitement. Maia and Anna were called next. The wind had been picking up all day, and there was now a blanket of sand blowing across the chilly desert. After Maia and Anna landed, the instructors notified us that it was too windy to land safely. The skydiving was canceled until tomorrow for the rest of us! It was a cruel and disappointing turn of events, as we were all mentally prepared for the excitement of jumping. We had the rest of the afternoon to walk around Swakopmund as we tried to forget the long wait we now had until tomorrow.

Sitting in the skydiving plane, Swakopmund, Namibia
Sitting in the skydiving plane, Swakopmund, Namibia
Skydiving day finally arrived, and the weather outside looked perfect. We went out to the desert one more time and proceeded with the day's events. With each jump taking half an hour or more, and only two people jumping at a time, it turned into a half-day affair. I was paired with Beth, and we were the next-to-last jumpers. I had watched enough jumps that my nerves had subsided and all I felt was pure excitement and anticipation. I was fitted into my suit and harness, and I walked with my instructor to the plane. Beth and I, along with our two instructors, two videographers, and the pilot, crammed into the tiny plane. There was no door on the side, so I was able to have a beautiful view of the sand dunes and the Atlantic coast as we ascended to 10,000 feet. When we were nearly there, my instructor hooked my harness to his. It was the point of no return. I heard the sound of the plane's engine change, and I had a brief knot in my stomach as I knew there were only seconds left until I was falling from that plane. My instructor scooted us to the edge, with my feet hanging out of the plane. He told me to lean my head back and cross my arms, and before my brain could process what was happening, I was falling toward the Earth almost two miles below me!

Skydiving, Swakopmund, Namibia
And we're out of the plane! – skydiving over Swakopmund, Namibia

Skydiving, Swakopmund, Namibia
Skydiving over Swakopmund, Namibia

It did not feel like falling, and it was not as terrifying as bungee jumping. After all, the instructor jumps for you – there is no time to think about it. The height is so great that you can't even register it – the ground just looks like a map. The free fall lasts for about mile, but the ground seems to close in very slowly, so the experience is more like flying. The instructor positioned my arms out to my side, and I flapped them like I was flying. The intense force of the wind made everything seem like it was occurring in hyper-motion. After only minutes, we had fallen a mile toward the desert below us, and my instructor opened our parachute. We shot upwards with great force – the hurricane wind and all the intense motion suddenly stopped, and everything was calm. The pressure that had built in my ears during the fall was so extreme that it was escaping from my ears on its own with a high-pitched squeal, like air escaping from the stretched opening of a balloon. I cleared my ears a few times, and I could soon hear again. My instructor handed me the controls of the parachute and told me to pull down hard on one side. We spun around and around, spiraling downward – ocean and desert blended into one. I was starting to become queasy, so I stopped spinning and enjoyed the rest of the glide to Earth.

Skydiving, Swakopmund, Namibia
Doing spirals over the desert – skydiving over Swakopmund, Namibia

Atlantic Ocean and sand dunes from skydiving plane, Swakopmund, Namibia © Matt Prater
The Atlantic Ocean and sand dunes from the skydiving plane, Swakopmund, Namibia
Skydiving, Swakopmund, Namibia
The parachute has opened, and we're coming in for a landing – skydiving over Swakopmund, Namibia

I took the rest of the day easy. In the evening, I went with a few others to dinner at a Thai restaurant. They were taking forever, and we were about to be late for Shutter Island, which we had planned on seeing at the nearby movie theater. We asked them if we could have our food to go, and we rushed over to the theater. This was the first movie theater I've seen since I was in Dubai two months ago, and I was excited since I'm a movie buff. There was one guy working at the ticket counter, and no one else seemed to be there – there were only two screens. We sorted out our Thai take-away on the table in the lobby and ate it while we watched the movie – that could never happen in the States!

Today was another relaxing day in Swakopmund full of good meals and a bit of civilization. I made the most of it since tomorrow it's back to the tent. I went with Tom and Jude to a German café for a fantastic breakfast – tea, scrambled eggs, pork sausage, bacon, mushrooms, tomatoes, and banana honey pancakes. I walked around town for a bit before having a springbok steak burger for lunch. Afterward, we walked down to the beach, but it was chilly and overcast. We haggled with some of the hawkers who were selling curios nearby and then walked to another café where I enjoyed some carrot cake and hot chocolate. I spent a few hours shopping and catching up on emails before walking back to the hostel to meet some others for dinner. We went to a delightful seafood restaurant that proved to be the perfect finale for Swakopmund.

Into the Desert

Day 77: Spitzkoppe, Namibia
Friday morning we drove two hours to Outjo, a small town with a charming little café that cooks up some excellent German pastries. After lunch, we continued another couple of hours to the cheetah park at Camp Otjitotongwe. The family that owns the park keeps tame cheetahs in a fenced-in area adjacent to the house, and we were able to pose for pictures with the purring cheetahs, pet them, and even watch the family's dog bravely challenge one of the cheetahs to a chase and a wrestling match. Afterward, we hopped in an open-top jeep and drove on a bumpy dirt road to the expansive grasslands that serve as the habitat for untamed cheetahs. These cats were certainly not the cuddly creatures we had been hugging at the house. They followed us in the jeep, slinking through the grass and eyeing us the whole time. As more cheetahs emerged from the bush, the driver prepared to throw hunks of raw meat to the cats. The first slab of meat flew into the air, and three cheetahs jumped straight up at it, meeting in mid-air and viciously tearing the meat to shreds with lightning-quick raw power. The cheetahs made a variety of strange high-pitched chirping vocalizations.

Cheetah, Otjitotongwe Cheetah Park near Kamanjab, Namibia © Matt Prater
Cheetah at Otjitotongwe Cheetah Park near Kamanjab, Namibia
Cheetah baring teeth, Otjitotongwe Cheetah Park near Kamanjab, Namibia © Matt Prater
A cheetah bares its teeth, Otjitotongwe Cheetah Park near Kamanjab, Namibia

We left Camp Otjitotongwe and its cheetahs yesterday morning and drove an hour and a half to visit a village of the unique Himba tribe. Himba men do most of the work, and the women spend all day beautifying themselves. The women never shower, but they apply a red clay mixture to their bodies and hair. After we walked around the village and met some of the women, they set up a craft market on blankets in a clearing between huts – the only source of income for the Himba comes from tourism.

Old Himba woman, near Kamanjab, Namibia © Matt Prater
An old Himba woman in a village near Kamanjab, Namibia
Himba woman, near Kamanjab, Namibia © Matt Prater
A Himba woman in a village near Kamanjab, Namibia
Himba child, near Kamanjab, Namibia © Matt Prater
A Himba child in a village near Kamanjab, Namibia

We stopped in nearby Kamanjab for lunch before driving four hours to the desolate and rocky massif know as the Brandberg, Namibia's highest mountain, in the area known as Damaraland in the northwestern Namib Desert. We set up bush camp in the midst of the picturesque landscape just as the tips of the granite koppies (hills) began to glow a fiery pink in the sunset – in fact, the name Brandberg means Fire Mountain in Afrikaans, Dutch, and German. While we waited on cook group to prepare our dinner of kudu steaks, Jess and I decided to climb one of the nearby koppies for a view of the sunset. It only took about ten minutes to race to the top, where we enjoyed a gorgeous view of the surrounding peaks silhouetted against a quickly darkening sky. As the last bits of orange faded at the horizon, we switched on our head lights and started the slippery descent back to the campsite. The journey down took much longer than the way up – about an hour – due to the scree (loose rocks) that covered the hillside. I had to use my tripod as a walking stick and step slowly one foot at a time to avoid slipping down the slope. We got back to the truck just in time for dinner, and we spent the evening roasting marshmallows in the fire and listening to Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon as we lounged on the roof of the truck and gazed at the millions of dazzling stars arcing across the desert sky.

Sunset at the Brandberg massif, Damaraland, Namibia © Matt Prater
The sun sets behind the Brandberg massif in Damaraland, Namibia
Twilight from a koppie in the Brandberg massif, Damaraland, Namibia © Matt Prater
An orange sunset fades into dusk, as seen from a koppie in the Brandberg massif, Damaraland, Namibia.

Dassie in the Brandberg massif, Damaraland, Namibia © Matt Prater
A dassie, or rock hyrax, peeks over a boulder in the Brandberg massif, Damaraland, Namibia.
We started off very early this morning with a hike into the Brandberg. Our destination was the "White Lady" rock paintings, a collection of human and animal figures dating back about 2,000 years ago. The paintings were likely produced by the San, or Bushmen, who have populated the area for thousands of years. Our guide spoke the local language of Nama, a member of the Khoisan family of African click languages. On the hike, we saw a few dassies (rock hyraxes), which resemble guinea pigs and are found throughout Africa.

We returned from the hike about 9:00 and drove three hours toward Cape Cross on the Atlantic coast. The landscape and climate changed significantly in this short distance. The rocky hillsides and cliffs soon flattened out into a vast and empty plain punctuated only by a few hazy, dimensionless suggestions of mountains on the horizon. The temperature dropped drastically, and wind whipped at us from the open sides of the truck – we all pulled our sleeping bags out of our under-seat lockers and bundled up like we were sheltering from a blizzard.

Cape Cross is famous for its massive colony of Cape fur seals, but these creatures are not as cute as they appear in photographs. The first thing that hit us as we climbed out of the truck was the foul, revolting smell that emanated from the thousands of blubbery animals. An endless carpet of seals covered the rocks all the way to the crashing waves, and more seals were swimming around in the sea. Many of the seals were engaged in vicious fights with one another, and the horrid honking sound that seals make was overwhelming.

Cape fur seal colony, Cape Cross, Namibia © Matt Prater
The Cape fur seal colony at Cape Cross, Namibia

It was another two and a half hours to Spitzkoppe, a spectacular landscape of bald granite peaks. We were about to arrive at our bush camp for the night (the second one in a row), when we came to a standstill. A massive branch was just slightly too low for our tall truck to pass. There was no way around it, as there was boulder on the other side. The only solution was to cut down the branch, but it would have taken forever with just an axe. So we started chopping with the axe to weaken the limb. Then we attached a cable to the front of the truck and tied the other end to the overhanging branch. When our driver put the truck in reverse, the limb split from the trunk and came down. We were finally able to pass.

Rock formations, Spitzkoppe, Namibia © Matt Prater
Granite rock formations at Spitzkoppe, Namibia
Campsite, Spitzkoppe, Namibia © Matt Prater
The campsite at Spitzkoppe, Namibia

After setting up our tents, some of us hiked up the nearby mountain. It was composed of a collection of massive bald granite boulders, which made the hike a bit easier than the slippery one at the campsite in the Brandberg. I watched the sunset from the top and then made my way back down, as I was on cook group tonight. During a break while cooking, I went to grab my camera and photograph the deep red remnants of the sunset and the dark silhouettes of the mountains. I walked about five feet from my tent and fell flat on a massive outcropping of granite rising at a gentle slope from the ground. The rock was in shadow, and I thought it was just flat ground ahead of me. My camera flew out of my hands, and I scraped both hands and arms up to my elbows on the extremely rough granite surface. After cleaning my wounds, I examined my camera – apparently it's built like a tank because it suffered quite a severe fall and the only evidence was an open memory card door and a small dent on the metal edge of my filter. Needless to say, I moved my tent further away from that rock!

Sunset, Spitzkoppe, Namibia © Matt Prater
The sun sets over the Namib Desert, Spitzkoppe, Namibia.

Namibia, Land of Extremes

Day 74: Etosha National Park, Namibia
Monday we drove over five hours to reach the Namibia border. It was a lonely border post, devoid of people save the handful of border officials. Such desolation was fitting for one of the most sparsely populated nations on Earth. Despite Namibia's reputation as a vast land of inhospitable deserts, our first experience with the country was quite the opposite. Our destination was Ngepi Camp, situated in the outer reaches of the Okavango Delta in the western part of the narrow Caprivi Strip, the northeastern panhandle of Namibia. When we arrived, we discovered that floods had cut off road access to the campsite. We unloaded all our tents and cooking supplies and sent them to the camp via boat. We then traveled to the camp in small groups in a Land Rover that could ford the river. As our Land Rover pulled up to the reception office, waves washed into the building's foundation.

Ngepi Camp was one of the quirkiest campsites we have visited, with a lounge full of massive bean bags and outside showers and toilets enclosed by walls of dried reeds. One reed enclosure is labeled the "Toilet of Eden". There is no door, but a notch where a stick can be placed horizontally across the walkway to indicate that the toilet is in use. Inside the large space, surrounded by lush trees and bushes, is a toilet situated like a throne on top of a pedestal. Next to the "Toilet of Eden" is another curious enclosure. A sign indicating "Gents" points to the left, and one indicating "Ladies" points to the right. If you walk to the left, a maze-like passageway leads all the way around the enclosure and ends right where the "Ladies" sign is hanging: there is only one entrance to the bathroom. Inside are two toilets side by side, with no barrier between them. The one labeled "Gents" has a chain and padlock holding the seat up, and the one labeled "Ladies" is adorned by a fuzzy pink rug. There are also a few outside showers scattered throughout Ngepi Camp, also enclosed by reed walls and guarded by notches and sticks for doors.

That night, I could hear the unmistakable grunting of hippos in the nearby flooded river. In the morning, we took boats back to the truck, but it took a very long time because the water was too shallow in many places for the boat to navigate – we got stuck on the bottom at one point and had to reverse to navigate a path to dry land. A few feet from shore, we had to climb out of the boat into the shallow water and wade with our bags the rest of the way. But the adventures of Ngepi Camp were not over yet.

We were already running late due to the flooding, but when our driver started the truck's engine and hit the gas, we felt a jolt and heard the futile spinning of the wheels. We were stuck in sand. He reversed a few times and tried to dislodge our tires, but we just sank deeper into the ruts. All 21 of us piled out of the truck and positioned ourselves at the back. When the driver hit the gas, we all pushed simultaneously. Despite the massive weight of our truck, it did budge slightly but then sank back into the sand. We tried a few more times to no avail before attempting another strategy. We pulled out four long metal tracks that were stored underneath the truck and positioned one in front of each tire. We gave one final push: the tires gripped the metal tracks and the truck escaped from the sandy pits, leaving four gigantic ruts in the earth. We were finally on our way, an hour and a half late.

Giant baobab tree, near Grootfontein, Namibia
Dwarfed by a giant baobab tree ("Tree 1063") near Grootfontein in northern Namibia
We drove until 5:00, stopping along the way for a two hour shopping break in the town of Rundu on the border with Angola. I bought a new pair of flip flops from a junky shop along a dusty road, as a strap on mine had broken. We bush camped that night near a Namibian national monument, the Giant Baobab Tree. This gargantuan tree has two main trunks that absolutely dwarf any tree I've ever seen. There is not much to do at bush camps, so Jude visited Tom and me in our tent, and we played Scrabble for a few hours.

Yesterday we drove almost three hours to the famed Etosha National Park in northern Namibia. We proceeded straight into a game drive, and we saw the usual – mostly zebra, gazelle, and a few giraffes. We also visited the Etosha Pan, the massive 75-mile-long dry salt pan that dominates the park. The landscape all the way to the horizon is as smooth and flat as a piece of paper, textured only by patterned cracks in the dry clay mud. When we reached our campsite at Okaukuejo, I walked over to the nearby watering hole where I spotted an elephant drinking and bathing by twilight. During the night, we heard the haunting calls of nearby jackals, which ran right past our tents and even took one guy's shoe.

Sun over Etosha Pan, Etosha National Park, Namibia © Matt Prater
The harsh desert sun blazes over the Etosha Pan in Etosha National Park, Namibia
People jumping, Etosha Pan, Etosha National Park, Namibia © Matt Prater
People jumping at the Etosha Pan, Etosha National Park, Namibia

This morning, we awoke extremely early for another game drive – a familiar routine by now. We spotted zebra, oryx, impala, a giraffe here and there, and a jackal – nothing terribly exciting. It sounds jaded, but it's just not that exciting to see another zebra or impala after having seen a million of them. I spent the rest of the day organizing my photos while lounging by the pool back at Okaukuejo Camp. At sunset, I climbed the spiral staircase to the top of a stone castle-like tower that serves as an observation point. Afterward, I skipped the truck dinner and went instead to the camp restaurant with a few friends. Dinner was buffet-style, but the meat was cooked on the spot while you watched. They had chicken and kudu – both were excellent, but those kudu steaks were the best meat I think I've ever eaten. Lions sure do have good taste. We all had piles of steaks and retired to our tents absolutely stuffed. We will probably still be full in the morning after so much meat!

Zebras at watering hole, Etosha National Park, Namibia © Matt Prater
Zebras at a watering hole in Etosha National Park, Namibia
Impala, Etosha National Park, Namibia © Matt Prater
An impala in Etosha National Park, Namibia