Thursday, December 08, 2005

Feeling good!

Clouds over the Okavango
Originally uploaded by CharlesFred.
Where to start?

Well, as mentioned briefly yesterday, we are now in Tsuneb in Northern Namibia, just to the east of Etosha National Park, famous for its game which gaters around the waterholes in the dry season. It is now the rainy season, so the game does not congregate for easy viewing, so we are not going there. Instead we are going off into the wilds of Kaokoland, in the very north-west of Namibia, where we will see beautiful landscapes, rivers, waterfalls, hot springs, bushmen paintings, some game and many birds and hopefully meet some of the Himba people. We are going for six days and five nights, camping with Janny and his son. Should be good.

Back here in Tsumeb, we have been treated to some lovely sunny weather, with clear blue skies, under which we see many flowering trees and plants in the gardens around the bungalows here. Everything is very German, notably the internal decor, with tiled bathrooms, bare-bricked walls, ‘brown’ furniture and muesli for breakfast! We are staying with Dirk and Monique in their Mousebird Backpackers Lodge, the only guests.. and Dirk is now showing off his boerenworst to |Fred at the wooden bar behind my back. Now, some mighty Eland steaks.... I think we will be eating them on the braai this evening.

We have met some other people here, none more notable than the Steinbach family from the local bakery. Mr Steinbach is very very thin, has a limp, a squinty face, a pipe, a droopy moustache and a very unpleasant manner, barking at both his staff (black) and his wife (Italian). She is fat and has a smiling face. Desperately lonely and frustated, she seizes on any foreigner coming into her shop and wants to show them the inside of the bakery. Very clean isn’t it, she says, as she walks past the peeling paint, the hospital beds (for she is turning her bakery into a backpackers lodge), the old rusting machinery and the piles of dust on the floor. After the tour, she sits us down and tells us about the chap (black) who worked at the shop until last week when he was caught stealing.... they look dub, she says, but they are really quite clever (he had been pocketing the credit accounts and within a few days had been sentenced to six months in prison..... six months she said, as if that wasn’t nearly enough... to which Fred responded that that is what you get for murder back in Holland!

But then we should go back to backpacker hell.. in the cool rain of Livingstone last weekend, the kwacha rising every day, the already high prices going up, being surrounded by young white backpackers busy arranging their white-water rafting, their bungy jumping and helicopter rides, when not enjoying their sunset booze cruises on the Zambezi (as much as you can drink of whatever you can lay your hands on). As you can imagine, this was not really our scene.... so we were quite glad to get away after our wet morning at the Falls (the droplets), followed by an afternoon watching three Premiership games in a row on the digital satellite TV at the bar, chatting to Andy and Fiona, two like-minded travellers, who had preceded us for much of our trip, through the Middle East and Ethiopia, even having met Monique, the Belgian lady we had spent our time with in Harar! They have sold up in London, are travelling for a year or so before looking for somewhere to live up north. After South Africa they go to India. We admired their perseverance as truth be told we were getting a litle bit fed up with our journey.

So, on Sunday morning, we took the taxi with our bags to a bus station out of town to travel the 200 ms to the border with Namibia at Katima Mulilo. If you look at the map, you will notice that Nambia sticks a finger out up north almost all the way to Livingstone. This is the Caprivi Strip, which Germany negotiated at the Berlin Conference, in exchange for Zanzibar which they ‘gave’ to Britain. It is only about 30 kms wide but stretches about 300 kms into what would have been Botswana, just underneath Angola, which is the other side of the Okavango River. The landscape was a pretty well much what it had been since we arrived in the north-eat of Zambia, namely flat and wooded, under a dull grey sky.

We were told at the border that we would be lucky to get threough on the road after all the rain and that we would probably have to wait a day for a bus to take us to Divundu, from where we would veer south along the Okavango to Shakawe in Botswana, where we hoped to find Nigel and Tuomo. As it happened, we caried our bags the 500 metres from one border post to the other whereupon, we were met by a chap looking for business on the road to Divundu. He had found two families wanting a lift to Windhoek already at 10.00 in the morning and had bene waiting til now (14.00) to fill his minibus up, so we were in fact extremely lucky and the father of one of the families was very glad that his family could finally get going.... it was a fast drive along the Caprivi Strip, with periodic signposts warnings of Elephants crossing....of which we saw a few by the wayside. We also saw our first sable antelope, standing next to a warthog, but for the rest it was the same mopane forest, interspersed with small villages of straw houses, surrounded by wooden fences, a few chickens running around, young children looking after the long-horned cattle and the goats.

Finally at Divundu, we were let out at a busy petrol station and had just arranged for a lift in the back of someone’s truck, just as it started raining, when the owner of the Ngepi Camp turned up and offered us a lift to his camp. His first question was where we were planning to go on from here and he looked very glum when we told him Shakawe. Maybe the next stage of our journey would not be so easy. Still, we were happy to be away from backpacker hell, even happier to be at Ngepi Camp, under the trees, on the banks of the river Okavango, in the company of our English host Neil and his New Zealand side-kick at the bar with a cold beer. Our hut was made of reed, with a thatched straw roof, a short walk away from the river and was to be shared with a dormouse who scuttled around the rafters, to keep us company. But first time for dinner and a few drinks for which we were joined by 53 Swedes who had turned up during the day in three pink buses........ VERY Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. It all got quite loud and was good fun. We managed to negotiate with Eddie, one of the drivers, to get a lift the next day down to Shakawe, thanks to Neil’s gentle prodding.

It was an early start the next day, even earlier for the young Swedes who had kept partying til dawn, and we climbed up with our bags to the front of Eddie’s bus. The day started off with a Soviet choir singing some stirring tune on the CD player and off we set.... along the sandy road towards the border and up to the gates of the Mahonga National Park, where we were told that two lorries had been stranded all night due to the bad state of the road! Frida and Agnetha had only just finished singing Dancing Queen (inevitable) when disaster struck and the bus came to a sudden stop.....

The road was soon full of half-naked bare-footed Swedes trying to push the buses through the wet sand. Branches were cut down from trees and sticks gathered in order to give the wheels something to grip on to, while the rain started again. We had no food and nothing to drink and were VERY dependent upon the good nature of our Scandinavia cousins... Eddie eased the tension by saying that it would be all right to try to hitch a lift with anyone else coming down the road and sure enough, just as it started getting very wet, our saviours arrived in the persons of Stefan and Sissie from Karlsruhe in Germany, Stefan having his first experience of driving in a 4x4. They, too were going to the Shakawe Fishing Lodge, the same as us and in we jumped! We slid around for a bit and saw a couple of giraffes but before long we were at the Botswana border and onto tarmac.

At the Lodge, Nigel was there in a meeting in a hut in a beautful garden with lawn facing out to the Okavango, the other shore being covered in papyrus and reeds. We had made it and he was just as surprised as we were, as this was certainly not the easiest place in the world to make a rendez-vous. This was to be our home for the next couple of days, a large concrete hut with a thatched roff, under the trees, surrounded b monkeys and many many birds, hippos and crocs in the river and reeds below. Our hosts were Helene and Barry from Zambia, Helene proving to be a fantastic cook (her grilled bream and her lemon souffle were exquisite) while Barry was a bit of an enigma. Grumpy and unsociable but with a great knowledge of birds. Nigel and Tuomo were busy with their work, discussing the state of the bushmen, culturally and linguistically, trying (we think) to get funding from Hugh who had made the trip over from London to look at the projects in the field. Nigel is a social linguist and does much work with indigenous peoples to help them retain their languages and the culture which goes with that. A local project they are working on near Shakawe is a mapping project where the bushmen will give their names to all the local places, so they will not be forgotten and which wil make it more difficult for the government to deny their rights to their lands. It is more complicated than this... but it is played out in the background of the Botswana government forcibly moving people out of their lands in the name of economic progress etc etc.

Our first afternoon was spent having snooze then walking to the local shop to buy some biscuits (those lemon creams again) and watching the birds, notably the carmine bee-eaters, photos of which should make the flickr site presently.

The next day we set off with Stefan and Sissie and Nigel and Tuomo to the Tsodilo Hills, a holy site for the bushmen, containing many many rock paintings, notably of elands, rhinos, giraffes and stick men with erect penises (which the Victorians did Not manage to erase). A beautiful site, four hills (Male, Female, Child and Cousin) of multi-coloured rocks arising from the plains below. We visited the museum and went on a two-hour walk around the Female, unfortunately without a guide, as he was drinking away the money he had earned a couple of days previously. Still, Nigel with his deep knowledge of bushmen culture proved a more than effective guide explaining the significance of many of the symbols.

Back at the camp, we had been looking forward to a boat trip along the famous Okavango, but Barry was out with a couple of other colleagues so we made do with sitting on the lawn and watching a parade of magnificent birds come before us. We saw cormorants, waders, giant, pied and woodland kingfishers, weaver birds, kites, fish eagle, starlings, rails, a drongo, owls, mousebirds, carmine and little bee-eaters, egrets, a heron and so on, whilst in the water lurked a huge crocodile.

We all had a drink or two in the bar after dinner, when it was time to say goodbye to our new friends Stefan and Sissie. The next day we saet off with Nigel and Tuomo in the back of their 1988 Land Rover Defender (looks bigger than it is.... or maybe Nigel just packed too many things?) and off we set back to Namibia, them off to Etosha National Park, us off to Tsumeb, where we would decide where to go to next. It was a long but pleasant drive as we took it in turns to be squashed up at the back. We look forward to seeing them again in Cape Town later during this trip.

So here we are in Tsumeb, Kylie Minogue singing away on MTV in the TV room next door, Fred on his second beer, while I bash away here..... hopefully not having totally bored anyone who has read this far. We are really looking forward to getting out again into the wilds of Kaokoland, a trip which will end a week today at Swakopmund, halfway own the coast of Namibia. We had talked about ending our trip sooner than 15th January but we are happy to be staying until at least the 12th (when there should be space for us on the KLM flight back from Cape Town). The weather is good, the sun is back, we see the stars, planets and moon at night and things look great again!

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