RPCVSF Goes on Safari to Namibia
By Greg Zell (Nigeria 62-64) Travel Coordinator RPCVSF
The group met up in Johannesburg and went straight to Tribes restaurant in the Emperor’s Palace casino complex for drinks and a bit of ceremony to initiate the 3 newbies to Africa. Now that they were going to be Africa hands, they would no longer say, “Johannesburg.” From now on it would be, “Jo’burg.” At dinner, most tried the ostrich steak fillet (farm-raised, of course) with berry sauce, washed down with a splash of South African bubbly. Both were proclaimed “delicious.”
Next morning was early, the first of many, for an hour and half flight to Windhoek (vind hook), the pretty capital of Namibia. We were met at the airport by Stewart, our fantastic guide. A 34 year old native of Zimbabwe, he said he was on his way to becoming a hooligan when he decided to pull himself together, started studying wild life and went to guide school. All his younger siblings have African names. For him, his mother just liked “Stewart.” He started by setting us straight: Some of you have heard of Africa time. Namibia was a German colony. We do everything on German time. And so it was. We boarded our “safari Ferrari”, as he called it, actually an enclosed air conditioned Toyota Land Cruiser for 7 of us and Stewart. Off we went on a short tour of the charming capital. Before heading to the coastal dunes, largest in the world, we stopped at a grocery store for Stewart to fill our coolers with lunch goodies and drinks. Our lunchtime routine: Stewart would pull up under a nice tree. We all pitched in to set up the folding table and chairs, unpack the coolers, chow down, and repack.
The dunes are national monuments. Climbing on them damages them and so is prohibited. The government has set aside one dune for turistas to climb. The wind was blowing the sand around this day. We decide climbing was not a good idea for people with glasses or contacts. We head for our lodge to begin another routine. All our lodges, except this one, were beauties, but all had a view. We would find a cozy part of the lodge facing west, order a drink or two from the bar and have a Sundowner followed by buffet dinner and a bottle of South African red and one of white, all included in the price of travel. This lodge was a “soft camp”, units built of wood frames sheathed in canvas with a permanent bathroom + toilet. When the canvas is made to look like a tent, this is called a tent camp. Ours was a soft camp. Overall, the set-up was satisfactory BUT the wind was blowing. The canvas flapped all night making sleep very difficult for still tired people.
We head up the Skeleton Coast stopping to see a fishing vessel caught on the reefs since 2007 being slowly disintegrated by the Benguela Current and wave action 24/7. Outside the scenic oceanside town of Walvis (vall fish, the Afrikaans pronunciation of the English corruption of whale fish) Bay we have lunch at The Raft, a restaurant on pilings over the water. The icy Benguela makes for fine oysters on the half shell. Heading north, we visit a seal rookery with more seals on shore and in the water than our imaginations could conjure. A lot of seals produces a lot of waste which makes for lots of odor which lives in turista memory.
In Damaraland (home to the Damara tribe), we see elephants, not ordinary elephants, desert-adapted elephants, not a sub-species, just adapted. They require far less water than ordinary elephants and get some from succulent plants. The countryside is very dry. Central Africa has been suffering from a drought for the last 5 years or so. We are at the end of winter in the southern hemisphere in desert and semi-desert. From sundown to sunrise, we are quite cool. In the sun, we get to the high 80s. A road sign marks crossing the Tropic of Capricorn into northern Namibia.
Next stop, Swakopmund, the resort city of Namibia, home to descendants of the original German settlers and winter destination for many German tourists. (Every street sign says “strasse”). We stay at the Hansa hotel built in 1905 but beautifully restored. (Hansa means Germany in Old German.) In the lobby, a voice calls out to us. “Are you Americans? My name is Jahana Hayes, I am America’s teacher of the year doing a State Department tour.” Her beauty fits the hotel. We have another great meal washed with a South African red and a white at The Tug, a boat in the harbor. A highlight of the trip is a side excursion in a dune buggy-like vehicle into the desert with a crusty Scot via Australia. He would spot a rise or mark in the sand, tell us there is an animal under there. We would get out of the vehicle. He would line us up to form a sun block. Animals living under the sand have no natural protection from the sun. He and his crew would dig a few inches until they found a critter which they showed us before returning it into the ground. They even found a deadly sidewinder snake. To give us a stir, he would hot-dog on the dunes. This was special. In town, I felt if I hollered, “achtung” I would bring the entire city to a halt. Nicely, one of our group spoke German which was a good icebreaker with the locals.
Off to Etosha National Park, one of Africa’s oldest and largest where we have 3 game drives. We see 14 lions, with one noshing on a kudu (large antelope); 2 black rhinos; 2 leopards; jackals; baboons; warthogs; guinea fowl; impalas, elands, kudus, springboks, steenboks, dik-diks, and oryx; giraffes; elephants; zebras (ordinary and mountain); several species of mongoose, more birds than we knew existed, skinks, geckos, and wildebeests (gnus). On our last game drive, we go to Namutoni, a park entrance in the far northeast corner. Here is a restored former German fort, used originally to subdue the Africans, then to house WWI enemy nationals who might stray into German territory, finally by South Africa for any troublemakers demanding independence. Our lodge, just outside the park, was straight from Architectural Digest.
Last stop is Africat Conservation Game Reserve, This is a huge electric fenced reserve where the animals roam free. 6 cheetahs greet us. We are lead into a blind which they call a hide. A leopard on the other side never sees people but hears the arrival of a vehicle and so knows it is going to eat. We peek at a sandy hill topped by what looks like a stubby dead tree, From an underground tunnel, a hunk of mule appears in a tree hole. The leopard retrieves it, lounges on a limb, and dines. These animals cannot be bred or released back into the wild. Their mothers were killed before they were taught by mom to hunt. They will never learn, cannot teach any young and so cannot go for bush. Lions and wild dogs are kept in holding pens out of public view.
Back in Windhoek, we stay in a very new Hilton. Our farewell dinner is at Joe’s Beer House, one of the city’s most popular restaurants. Most opt for roast oryx, the national symbol of Namibia. I pass. Game is too tough for me unless ground in a burger. The game we have been served at every meal is from older animals sent to hunting reserves as a form of culling. A few awards were given out: Best Dressed Male: Ted; Best Dressed Female: Lisa; Best Shopper: Maria; Earth Mother of Africa: Marge for her years of service; The Order of Women of the Bush was awarded to Corina and Natalie who met the bush and loved it.
The safari was a great success.. No one got sick because everyone followed Peace Corps/CDC protocols for eating and drinking in Africa. My formula: an unusual county, a good group of travelers, and a fabulous guide. (Stewart was the best of all my excellent guides.) Even our Africa hands had never seen anything like Namibia. “Amazing” was the word most often heard.