If you’ve browsed our website you will know that Rob loves cycling and has covered many kilometers on his bike in Southern Africa, Australia and Nepal. There are times when his hobby is a bit of a strain for me – like when he cycles for hours on his static trainer in the house or when I have to massage his weary muscles with Arnica Oil after a long ride – but there are many benefits for me as well.
As the sole member of his back up team I get to spend a lot of time waiting at the side of the road for him. I usually drive about fifteen to twenty kilometers ahead and wait for him to catch up. After checking that all is well, or perhaps sharing a cool drink or a cup of coffee, I then proceed to the next waiting point.
The back roads of Namibia are an absolute treat for this, especially as I like to photograph the scenery and meditate in the silence of the deserted countryside. And deserted it is; we may not see another car for hours! But in the silence I never know what nature is going to offer me in the way of birds, animals and beautiful vistas.
There’s something about being out there, totally alone in the wild, that lifts the spirits and restores the soul. I can so understand why cyclists like to take to the quiet of country roads.
The Namibian country roads that I’m referring to are not in game reserves, they are ordinary public roads flanked by extensive farms that are home to animals of every description. Unfortunately one also encounters evidence of the harsher side of life when one comes across animals that have been hit by speeding cars.
The countryside has a harsh beauty all of its own. It’s here that I take deep breaths and fill my lungs with fresh air.
The birdlife is quite amazing and whenever I choose a place to stop and wait for Rob, the decision is usually influenced by a bird I’ve seen perched in a tree or an animal nearby.
The quiet early mornings on the roads less travelled, moving at the speed of a casual cyclist enjoying the warmth of the sun on his back, gives one the time and opportunity to reflect on subjects profound or subjects superficial. And that in itself is a rare commodity.
The only time that the Tsauchab River has any water in it is after exceptionally heavy rains, and in the Naukluft region of Namibia that is very rarely. The “river” is approximately 100 km long and is best known for the spectacular Sesriem Canyon, which it has carved through the sedimentary rock over the millennia, and for the usually dry lake called Sossusvlei, in the very heart of the Namib Desert. Sossusvlei marks the end of the Tsauchab River’s abortive attempt to reach the Atlantic, for here it is blocked by some of the biggest sand dunes in the world.
It is on the banks of this ephemeral river that the Tsauchab River Camp is situated.
The driveway to the reception area of the Tsauchab River Camp is decorated on both sides with metal animals and the like, assembled from oddments from cars, tractors and who-knows-what-else, welded together. Some of the assemblages are easily recognized, some are a mystery to all but the creator. Yes…But is it art? Hmm.
Whatever your view of the scrap-metal creations, don’t let them put you off. The campsites are magnificent! I think that they must rank as the most spacious campsites in all of Namibia – the campsite that we stayed in had no fewer than three separate areas in which we could camp, and no fewer than three separate toilets. Some of the toilets are not strong on privacy, which is not terribly important in view of the isolation of the campsite.
And some allow limited activity. I assume that it was a courtesy to the ladies that this was shaped and positioned like an ordinary toilet and not like the urinals that usually populate gentlemen’s facilities.
The main ablutions, though, is built between the multiple trunks of an enormous ficus and is of the highest standard. Step inside and the fitments and cleanliness would do a good hotel proud.
One section of the Tsauchab River along this stretch is fed by a spring, and the pools contain water all the year round. Because of this, there is a stretch of riparian forest, mostly of wild figs, that is home to a multitude of birds and provides delightful walks through the deep shade. The channel of the river shows evidence of the flash floods that are a feature of much of Namibia, and the roots of some of the fig trees have been well exposed through the erosion of the river banks.
In the evening we were treated to magnificent sunsets and were greeted in the morning by a slow parade of kudu along a ridge overlooking the campsite. In the absence of other campers in the vicinity we felt especially privileged to share these experiences in the absolute quiet that is such a rarity in the city.
This is a spot definitely worth a visit.
It is not a simple matter, reaching Sandwich Harbour, just 50-odd kilometers south of Walvis Bay on the Atlantic Ocean coast of Namibia. Lying within the Namib Naukluft National Park, it is jealously guarded by towering sand dunes that plunge straight down into the cold waters of the Atlantic, leaving very little flat and firm sand at the water’s edge, even at low tide. There is no easy access.
However, for keen birders, it is worth putting in the effort required to reach this important RAMSAR site where, at times, there may be upwards of 200,000 birds present. The area between Sandwich Harbour and Walvis Bay is also home to around 90% of the world population of Chestnut-banded plover.
We decided not to drive ourselves on this challenging trip, but to rely on the experience of a local tour operator who, as we understood it, ran regular trips to the isolated spot. Hmmm. We left Walvis Bay at about nine in the morning and were very soon deep in the “Sand Sea” that makes up the Namib Desert between Walvis Bay and Luderitz Bay. No roads. No Tracks. Just dunes, one after the other without end.
The Land Rover Defender coped quite well with the soft sand, although it was defeated by many of the steeper dunes of soft sand that had us sliding backwards or, perhaps worse, semi-sideways, when forward momentum was lost. It was not possible to reach any of the firmer sand at the edge of the sea because the tide was too high and access blocked, and eventually our guide advised us that we would have to walk the last stretch.
Fair enough. Off we went.
At about eleven o’clock, still making our way down the coast, knee deep in ice-cold water most of the time, our intrepid guide said that he would return to the Land Rover and see whether he could find a way to Sandwich Harbour as the tide would be retreating by now. We should carry on just a little further and we would reach Sandwich Harbour, where he would join us shortly. I never saw him again until after 5 o’clock! That is, after I had visited Sandwich Harbour on my own (Jane was really ill and, finding a wonderful spot with lots of bird activity, sat out the last stretch to Sandwich Harbour), and after I had walked back to where we had left the Land Rover. Thank goodness not all guides are as irresponsible as this thoughtless soul!
The bird life is astonishing along this stretch of coast, though, and that was the main reason for the trip. Gulls, terns and plovers of all varieties. Flamingoes. Avocets. Herons. Ducks. Cormorants. All in numbers that would be difficult to find elsewhere.
Incidentally, in spite of its name, Sandwich Harbour has never been a harbour at all, although it served as a refuge for whaling ships and the like in years gone by. A misnomer, really. Like calling the fellow who drove us on this trip a “guide”.
Sossusvlei is generally regarded as one of the most spectacular landscapes in Namibia. The ‘vlei’ itself is situated at the point where the Tsauchab River dams up at the foot of a spectacular series of sand dunes, its route to the sea blocked. The sand that makes up these massive dunes, amongst the biggest in the world, was carried here by the east winds from central Namibia and owe their distinctive overall colour to the presence of iron oxide, with streaks of black contributed by magnetite and red by traces of garnet.
We have been to Sossusvlei several times, the most recent trips being with Jane’s son Mick (who set up this website for us – see lookatbowen.com), and we also included a visit to Sossusvlei in a short round trip from Windhoek with some friends, Duncan and Beryl, taking in the Kuiseb Canyon and Sesriem Canyon.
It is a leisurely drive on the gravel C26 from Windhoek to the Gamsberg Pass. From the top of the pass there are quite spectacular views of the Kuiseb River in the valley below and after a short stop we moved on to the Kuiseb Canyon.
The Kuiseb Canyon is carved by the Kuiseb River, and is well known as the area in which two German geologists, Henno Martin and Hermann Korn, lived for more than two years in order to avoid internment during World War II. Henno Martin’s book “The Sheltering Desert” gives a vivid account of this experience and is well worth reading.
The Kuiseb River seldom flows on the surface and even more seldom does it reach the sea, but it plays a very important role in preventing the northward march of the sand dunes.
Sesriem Canyon, on the Tsauchab River, gets its name from the days when the early travelers needed to draw water from the river in the canyon and, because of its depth, tied six leather thongs together, fastened a bucket to the end and lowered it to the pools below. In Afrikaans “ses” is six and “riem” is the name for the leather thongs; hence Sesriem.
Sesriem is the “gateway” to Sossusvlei in the Namib Naukluft National Park and there is a plethora of accommodation available in the area. We stayed at Betesda Lodge, which was very comfortable, albeit a little further from Sossusvlei than some of the alternatives. The following morning we left Betesda quite early for the short drive to Sossusvlei.
Located about 50km inland from the Atlantic Ocean, Sossusvlei and the neighbouring Deadvlei and Hidden Vlei lie at an altitude of between 550 and 560 metres above sea level, with the dunes around the vlei rising 80 to 110 metres above this. The highest dune in the area is thought to be Dune 7 (apparently the seventh dune after crossing the Tsauchab River, and not to be confused with the famous Dune 7 near Walvis Bay) at approximately 380 metres.
These dunes are called “Star Dunes” and are given their characteristic shapes by the winds that blow from different directions as the seasons change. The dunes are therefore fairly stable and are not moving in a particular direction under the influence of the wind.
Of particular delight to photographers is the vlei close to Sossusvlei itself known as Deadvlei, named after the eerie skeletal remains of ancient-looking Camelthorn trees found in the pan. Extremely photogenic, depictions of this moody spot can be found in almost every guide book or coffee table book on Namibia!
From Sossusvlei we returned to Windhoek via the spectacular Spreetshoogte Pass, reportedly the steepest pass in Namibia.
Anyone who has traveled from Windhoek to Swakopmund will be familiar with the imposing outline of the Spitzkoppe mountains. Standing on a flat plain at an altitude of 1728m above sea level, they should be clearly visible. Often, however, they are shrouded by haze or dust.
The highest peak is 700m and is known locally as =/Gaingu, meaning the last large mountain on the way north (isn’t that quaint!) It sits proudly alongside other domed mountains called the Pondoks, which is the local vernacular for small rounded huts that are made from branches and cow dung. Further west lie the Little Spitzkoppe. These granite inselbergs have been eroded over time by wind and weather and shaped into the interesting rocks that so many folks have come to love.
Spitzkoppe is an easy three hour drive from Windhoek and as we’d never camped in the area before we were keen to experience it for ourselves. We arrived quite late in the afternoon and were a little dismayed to find that all the regular campsites were already occupied. By regular I mean those campsites that had a 44 gallon drum serving as a dirt bin – there were no other facilities on offer, not even toilets or water, at least that we could see! We drove around until we found a nice spot right up against an enormous granite mountain – in fact a sheer cliff rose hundreds of meters above us, making our car look quite dinky by comparison.
Night fell quickly as the sun sank down behind the mountain and it wasn’t long before we were treated to the sight of an enormous orange full moon that made the need for torches quite unnecessary.
Rob soon had a fire going and we sat chatting about the prospect of seeing new birds the following day. Our Roberts Bird Guide told us that Herero Chats were endemic to this area and they would be lifers for us. It’s always exciting to notch up a lifer and to get a photo of one is an added bonus.
We were up early the next morning and after breakfast, we walked a short way from our campsite around the base of the mountain, where we came to a clearing with a thicket of bushes covered in purple tubular flowers. This turned out to be a magical spot as the flowers attracted the Dusky Sunbirds and there were literally dozens of these lovely little birds flitting from bush to bush drinking in the nectar. Rob was in his element photographing them and we spent a good hour there totally enthralled at the spectacle before us.
We eventually dragged ourselves away and headed back across the plains to an area called Small Bushman’s Paradise where rock art adorns the faces of enormous boulders.
Along the way we noticed some mountaineers attempting a particularly steep and difficult climb. The enormity of what they were doing struck us when we saw how small they looked against the rocks meters above us. This area is a favourite with rock climbers and over the years many have met their fate on these perilous mountains.
It gets quite hot walking, even in winter, so it’s always a good idea to carry plenty of water and something to eat. We had lunch in the shade of some big boulders and managed to tick off a pair of Herero Chats, although getting a decent photo of them proved somewhat difficult. The birdlife in this area is quite magnificent with about 200 different species on the list. There are also a number of animals to be found, but they made themselves very scarce during our visit and we were out of luck until the following day.
By mid-afternoon we were ready to head back to camp and take a rest. The campsite offered up no shade at all so it was rather hot inside the rooftop tent. We did manage to sleep for a bit and were woken rather rudely by birds gathering outside. I had thrown some breadcrumbs out for them and as we’d taken our cameras up with us, we were able to photograph them from our own ‘bird hide’. Starlings, Mountain Chats and Hornbills all fought over the scraps of bread as we clicked away happily unseen above them.
It had been a magnificent day and we’d had plenty of exercise, sunshine and birds to photograph. Once again the moon gave us a special show as we bid farewell to the day.
We packed up our belongings the next day and drove to all the places that we hadn’t been able to go to on foot. Our first visit was to the southern part of the area where the boulders were spanned by an enormous natural arch of rock. From here the Erongo Mountains were clearly visible in the distance. The guide book told us that there were some old graves on the way to Bushman’s Paradise, but try as we might we couldn’t find them.
We stopped off at a disused water reservoir that was covered with bushes and trees and were delighted to spot a pair of black mongooses. The black mongoose (Galerella nigrata) is a fairly rare specimen in Namibia and is mainly found in the Erongo mountains. I had been fortunate enough to spot these elusive creatures on two previous occasions and had a hard time getting Rob to believe that I’d actually seen them! I was therefore especially pleased when we came across the pair at the reservoir and Rob was able to see them for himself. They were rather shy though and ducked into the undergrowth and although we waited for a good half hour for them to reappear, they must have been watching us and kept hidden.
From there we moved on to Bushman’s Paradise, on the eastern side of the area. Here there is a climb up a steep incline, with assistance provided by a thoughtfully placed chain handrail.
From the top it’s a short walk to a rock shelter in which a number of paintings can be found. This art, believed to have been the handiwork of the San people some 25 000 years ago, was created using extracts from vegetables, blood from animals as well as the urine from dassies (Rock Hyrax) and even Ostrich egg yolks. It was a sacred area for the nomadic people of old and many of the paintings depict their spiritual practices. We watched in horror as other visitors placed their hands on the paintings. This is causing significant damage to these ancient paintings and we wondered why their guide didn’t dissuade them from doing this. Often visitors wet the paintings to make them clearer to photograph – another reason why they are fading at a faster rate than ever before.
Our time at Spitzkoppe was drawing to an end. It had been a wonderful weekend and we were happy to take away lots of happy memories of our two days there. As we drove out we passed the local Spitzkoppe community, who farm the area with goats and cattle. The area abounds in semi-precious stones and these also form part of their income as visitors are always keen to buy them.
Well worth a visit, we will definitely be going back to Spitzkoppe before we head home to South Africa.
Summer is not the best time of the year to go to the Waterberg as we were to find out when we paid the area a visit. However, we duly set off from Windhoek on a Friday afternoon and drove the 300 kms north with high expectations and our usual enthusiasm when going to see a new place.
As always, we had our guide books with us so could read up on the geology and history of the area. Nicole Grunert has an interesting book (Namibia – Fascination of Geology) that describes how erosion formed the enormous red sandstone cliffs of the Waterberg. According to her the Waterberg was mainly characterized by tectonic processes, when an equalizing movement in the earth’s crust took place causing a comprehensive elevation of the land. An old fault zone in the area of the Waterberg was reactivated and this zone, which stretches from Omaruru, past the Waterberg up to Grootfontein, is now known as the Waterberg Thrust.
Historically, the area is famous for the final battle of the Herero uprising in 1904. Here, a comparatively small number of Germans put down the Hereroes and brought an end to the war. The battle was apparently made very difficult by the dense vegetation in the area. Today a small cemetery marks the final resting place of about seventy young German men who lost their lives in the fight. A long way from home, it is sad that they had to give up their promising young lives in such a remote and desolate spot.
It is the victors who usually get to write the history and sadly we could find no memorial to the many Hereros who fought and died for what they believed in.
The campsite in the Waterberg Plateau Park is a beautiful shaded oasis with enormous trees and sprinklers that lazily flick water over the lush green lawns. We found a super shady site fairly close to the ablution block and soon had the rooftop tent up and our table and chairs unpacked. Our first impression was of lots of bird activity in the park with starlings, crimson breasted shrikes, forked tailed drongos and noisy wood hoopoes flitting around.
Apart from the birds, the sprinklers attracted a few little ground squirrels that were quite tame and didn’t run away when we approached them.
A short walk towards the towering sandstone cliffs had us passing a fair sized restaurant and an inviting looking swimming pool. At the foot of the mountain, some distance from the campsites, a number of chalets were nestled amongst shady thorn trees.
Being one of the more popular Parks Board camps, we had to share the spot with other campers. Our site had a large concrete braai where later we were able to cook our meat and potatoes whilst enjoying the cool of the evening and the sound of crickets around us. When you’re sitting in the dark, watching the flickering fire flames and enjoying the symphony of the night creatures you truly feel like you’re one with the African bushveld. For me it’s a special time of the day and I really savour the experience.
Our plan the next day was to climb up the cliffs to the top of the plateau from where we would get amazing views over the plains below. At the foot of the mountain we were a bit sidetracked by two shy little deer that we followed into the dense bush for a photo shoot. They blended into the woodland so well, only making themselves visible when they took off in fright as we approached them. The birdlife in this area is also abundant and we flushed out some red billed francolins and spent about half an hour trying to photograph a pair of yellow-bellied eremomelas. The Hartlaub’s francolin is found in this area, but unfortunately remained elusive on this trip.
The path up the mountain is quite steep and is mostly through shaded woodland with a carpet of dry leaves. Quite near the top the trees thin out a bit and one catches glimpses of the vast expanse of land below. On one of the rocks near the top we passed a plaque honouring a member of the Mountain Club who had lost his life in a rescue operation here many years before. We later heard from a former member of the Mountain Club that he had plunged to his death when he stepped on a tuft of grass at the side of the cliff which gave way underneath him.
It was a bit disappointing to reach the rocky outcrop at the top of the cliff and to find that we weren’t allowed to go any further without a guide and a permit. The plateau at the top is home to many dangerous wild animals, including white rhinos, buffalo and leopards, so it is understandable that they want to protect both the visitors and the animals. We sat for a long time looking out over the plains below us, their natural beauty marred somewhat by the dirt roads that cross-crossed them. Occasionally in the distance we saw a cloud of dust raised by a passing car. It was very peaceful up there, but we didn’t linger too long as we wanted to explore the area at the bottom.
Our bird watching was very productive as we saw a pair of groundscraper thrushes near the chalets. Continuing on towards the little German cemetery we photographed Ruppell’s Parrots and a Purple Roller. By mid-morning the heat was starting to take its toll on me and I had to leave Rob to wander through the bush on his own while I took shelter in the campsite under the shady trees with a good book. The squirrels and birds around the campsite were a pleasurable distraction.
Eventually even Rob couldn’t tolerate the heat anymore and we settled down to a siesta until the sun disappeared behind the mountains. This is always my favourite time of the day as the sting has been taken out of the heat and the birds reappear as if to make the most of the last hour or so of daylight.
By the time we arrived back a big bus carrying students from the Namibian PolyTech had pulled in and unfortunately ruined the peace and quiet with their loud music and partying. I’m sure that we weren’t alone in wishing that they had allowed us a quiet evening out in nature. We sometimes feel that people lose the plot when it comes to weekends away in the bush – if they want to party and listen to loud music they should do it at home or at discos, not in places where others are trying to get away from these very noises to listen to natures night sounds.
In spite of our rowdy neighbours, the weekend was considered a great success and we thoroughly enjoyed our stay at Waterberg. Our biggest regret was not booking a hike at the top of the plateau, but then again, it gave us a good excuse to go back another time.
The First of Several Weekends at Ameib Ranch – June 2006
Someone in Underberg once said: “Here comes the tortoise” when I drove the Toyota into their driveway. I smiled when I realized that they were referring to our rooftop tent – the little house on the back of our bakkie. Yes, that’s true and what a wonderful little house it has proved to be over the years. It has served us well on many trips and Namibia has been the ideal country to put it to good use. This being the land of eternal sunshine, one can always rely on the weather being sunny and fine when planning a camping trip.
Thanks to an informative book called “African Adventurer’s Guide to Namibia” by Willie and Sandra Olivier, we discovered Amieb Ranch quite soon after our arrival in Windhoek. Situated in the beautiful Erongo mountains halfway between Windhoek and Swakopmund, Amieb is one of my favourite places in Namibia. There are two ways to get there, one via Usakos and the other on a rather scenic route via Omaruru and through the Erongo Mountains. If one has time obviously the scenic drive is better, but it is longer, so the first two times we stayed at Amieb we opted for the shortest route to get there.
After turning off at Usakos one crosses the dry Khan riverbed at least six times as it winds its way alongside the road to Amieb. Huge trees line the river banks and I always feel that we should take a walk along this riverbed sometime before we return to South Africa. Amieb Ranch, being a nature reserve as well, is fenced off and on arrival one is met by an enormous metal gate that the guard opens with great effort to let one in. The scenery here is quite dramatic, with the Erongo mountains forming an awesome backdrop. These imposing mountains just get bigger and bigger as one comes closer. After passing an airstrip flanked by an “arrivals building” consisting of a thatched roof supported by four wooden poles, a large dam comes into view. The two bird hides on its banks invite us to view the water birds that live there.
On arrival we are guided into the car park by a friendly employee and escorted to Reception through an amazing garden of indigenous trees and plants. We are greeted by a number of friendly cats, one of which looked like it had long gone Siamese ancestors. With the formalities taken care of we spent some time looking at photographs on the walls. They had the usual pictures of the mountains and Phillips Cave, but we were interested in a photo of a zedonk – a cross between a zebra and a donkey. Assured that this creature did actually exist and could still be seen, our appetite was whetted for whatever other wonders lay in store for us.
We were then directed to the camping area a short way from the main buildings and were pleasantly surprised to see how neat and orderly it was. Campers have their own reasonably sized swimming pool and a small but adequate ablution block. Many of the sites had thatched umbrellas and bomas with concrete floors, but generally the ground was dirt that was meticulously raked every day. The groundsman must have had Zen tendencies as he raked away any footprints almost as soon as they were made! We’ve been to Ameib several times and always managed to stay in the same campsite – a rather nice one close to all the amenities.
Located on the property is Phillips Cave, a national heritage site because of its rock art, and Bull’s Party, a collection of gi-normous round granite boulders spread over a large area. We haven’t worked out why it’s called Bull’s Party, but everyone we’ve taken there has been most impressed with the place. In addition to these two attractions, the Ranch also offers technical climbing in the mountains and numerous hikes. On arrival we’d discussed an ambitious circular hike with the owner that would have us walking from the campsite to Phillips Cave, across the valley to Bull’s Party and then around the mountain to see Elephant’s Head and back again, a distance of roughly eighteen kilometres. Not too far in hiking terms, but when one takes the heat into consideration, the hike becomes something of an epic journey.
Setting up camp literally takes a few minutes for us. We have a wonderful routine going – Rob opens up the rooftop tent and I tend to the table and chairs and unpack sleeping bags and pillows. In no time we’re relaxing in our new environment, usually with a kettle on the gas fire for some tea, or with a cold beer from the fridge depending on the time of day. Apart from the rooftop tent, our little Engel fridge has been the single most useful purchase that we’ve made for our camping trips. Always assured of cold beers, cool drinks and unrunny margarine, it’s an absolute must in this hot environment. It’s also ideal for storing meat and salads for a couple of days.
Looking forward to our hike the next day, we settled into the camp and watched the sun set over the distant peaks of Spitkoppe. This was followed by a scrumptious braai under fifty trillion stars! The night sky in Namibia, especially out in the country, has to be seen to be believed. One feels rather small and insignificant in the grand scale of things when one looks up at the Milky Way in all its glory. Namibia is well-known for its magnificent views of the stars and the big observatory in the Gamsberg draws lots of visitors.
We set off early the next morning to try and catch the coolest part of the day. The walk to Phillips Cave starts off along a flat path that is flanked by lots of trees, most of which have been numbered. We’d been given an information sheet about all the numbered trees, so spent some time identifying them as we walked past. One of the most common in the area is the Shepherd Bush, a strange tree with stemless leaves growing directly on the branches.
Also plentiful and literally growing out of the rocks, are the varieties of Commiphora (also known as “kanniedood”) – vaguely similar to the botterboom with their papery bark, they are bulbous in shape and seem stunted in their growth. Sometimes their bark is a bright copper colour, making them rather beautiful. Because of their short stocky shape, they look like miniature bonsai arrangements on the rocks and I never cease to be fascinated by these quaint little trees that seem to grow with no nourishment whatsoever.
When the path changed to rock and we started climbing a bit, Rob pointed out a small and somewhat lethargic Horned Adder he’d spotted. We were wearing hiking boots so were in no danger of being bitten by the adder if we’d inadvertently stepped on it. Horned Adders are quite venomous and a bite has some nasty repercussions, so one does want to avoid them if at all possible. Hikers have to keep an eye open for snakes as they are rather plentiful in Namibia! Fortunately they are more prevalent in summer and most of our trips are done in winter, so we don’t come across them too often.
We reached Phillips Cave about an hour later after a very steep climb up a rocky incline. Set in the side of a huge rock face, the cave is more of a gaping opening in the mountain really and looks like a large open mouth.
The back wall is covered in bushman paintings, some very faint, others more distinct. There is a real danger of them fading and not being visible quite soon in the future. The paintings typically were of animals, and included antelope, zebra, ostrich and a big white elephant. There were also some humans depicted, probably performing a spiritual ritual. On the floor of the cave were a number of stone implements supposed to have been used by the bushmen.
It was interesting to see the composition of the rock at the entrance to the cave and also on the way up there. It is very soft and breaks off in huge chunks. This process is known as exfoliation and that’s an apt description because that’s exactly what it looks like the rocks are doing. In fact the pieces of rock fall off like an onion peeling layer by layer.
We sat for a while watching a magnificent lizard with a bright orange head and blue scaly body. Its proper name is the Namibian Rock Agama and these colourful little fellows are found wherever there are rocks. I think they provide a tasty snack for the eagles and kestrels that hunt over the mountains. One can also always be sure of seeing dassies wherever it’s rocky and the Phillips Cave area is home to dozens of these little creatures.
After a light snack and some cold drinks we set off on the track that lead across the valley to Bulls Party. The path wound down the same way we’d come and then crossed a dry river bed before turning right onto new territory. The walk across the flat plain seemed to take forever, probably because of the lack of shade, and the heat that was making itself felt. The sky was an endless blue with no signs of clouds to cover the sun even for a moment. We saw some buck along the way and were amused by the loud screeches of the colourful rosy-faced lovebirds as they flew overhead in small groups. With their rounded heads and beaks, Rob likened them to spitfires – the planes used in the Second World War. That description appealed to me immensely and I had a good chuckle every time I saw them after that.
When we were in New Zealand we stopped at a tranquil place called The Chasm quite near Milford Sound and came across a notice board nestled in the trees with the following quote:
“The finest workers in stone are not copper or steel tools, but the gentle touches of air and water working at their leisure with liberal allowance of time.” David Henry Thoreau.
This could have been written about our next stop – Bull’s Party.
Bull’s Party is an amazing assortment of round granite boulders. One in particular looks like the head of a parson, others just look like what they are – enormous boulders.
What is interesting about them is the way the wind and water has, over millions of years, eroded them into round spheres, now resting on very small points on the ground. The geological name for them is ‘woolsack’ granite boulders – due largely to the variations in temperature – extreme heat and cold over a sustained period. With many of these boulders perched on the side of the mountain one can easily imagine them reaching a point where, with sufficient wind or water, they could roll down to a new resting place on the flat plain below. It’s a fascinating place and we almost had to drag ourselves away after spending some time exploring the area.
From Bull’s Party we made our way around the mountain to a flat rocky plain. From here we had a wonderful view of Elephant’s Head – an enormous rock taking up the entire side of the mountain which, as its name suggests, resembles a large elephants head with the trunk coming down almost to ground level. We carried on around the mountain, past lots of even bigger boulders than we’d already seen, to a point on the southern side where we could climb to the top of the Elephant’s Head.
This section was really interesting. Where we had to negotiate the sheer rock face, there were rungs hammered into the rock. Other spots had rungs in conjunction with sturdy ficus trees that we used to pull ourselves up. Still other places had rungs and chains for us to pull on. It only really got challenging and a bit scary near the top of the mountain, where we had to pull ourselves up with the help of a chain. It would have been a very high drop if we’d slipped and fallen. At the top we had to jump over a rather wide chasm to continue with the walk across the top of the mountain. Unfortunately the wind was blowing quite hard up there and neither of us wanted to risk falling into this deep cavity, so we opted to retrace our steps and go back the way we’d come up. This wasn’t quite so easy, as the scary section was just as frightening to go down backwards as it had been on the upward journey. We made it though and felt rather pleased with ourselves for having been so adventurous.
It’s not really advisable to visit granite sites in the heat of the day. Not only does one have to contend with the burning sun overhead, but the rocks reflect the heat, making it rather uncomfortable. Early morning is probably the best time to visit the area if one has the choice and the time available. The rocks cool down dramatically at night so there is quite a variation in temperature at the start of the day.
Having seen all there was to see in the area, we made our way back to the campsite. This time we followed the road that is used by those not fit or mad enough to walk the whole way. The mountains on either side of the road are really beautiful so we continued to enjoy the spectacle as we made our tired way back. Our round trip had taken us ten hours, admittedly with many stops to look at birds, so we rewarded our mammoth effort with some ice cold beers followed by a wonderfully refreshing shower.
Early the next morning we walked a short way back along the road and took the trail leading to Zum Reisen. This is another fascinating place amongst the rocks and we saw lots of interesting trees and animal tracks along the way. Dassies called out from the rocky outcrops, their cries mimicking the braying of donkeys. We heard too the cries of the Red billed Francolins, who also like to walk amongst the rocks. We were especially thrilled to see a pair of black Verreaux’s Eagles circling overhead – too high up for a photo unfortunately, but we were able to identify them easily enough. We had hoped to see some Hartlaub’s Francolins, which are found in that area, but they remained off our ‘lifer’ list for the weekend.
And yes, we did manage to see the extraordinary zedonk before we left. His body was quite plain, but the stripes were clearly visible on his legs.
On a scale of one to ten, I’d rate Amieb Ranch a nine. It’s a wonderful spot – and excellent value for money if you are camping as there is so much to see and do. We like the place so much that we have since taken many of our guests and friends there – Mick – Pete and Lauren – Vaughan and Mary – Mary and John – Jo and Des – Neize and Hartmut. (I think we should be on the Ameib payroll!)
A Weekend in Homeb – October 2006
Rob gave me a wonderful little book called ‘The Namib’ by Mary Seely – which gives one all sorts of interesting bits of information about the desert. Dipping into this gold mine of facts and figures, he came across the name of a place called ‘Homeb’ situated in quite a remote part of the Naukluft Park. It had a fairly decent list of birds, amongst which was the Dune Lark, which is uncommon elsewhere but can be found in the dunes near Homeb. These little birds would be ‘lifers’ for us, so we decided to head off to Homeb.
Any visit to the Naukluft Park requires a permit, which I duly bought at the Reservations Office in Windhoek. Most of the time no-one even checks these , but we feel that it really is the right thing to do, so happily pay the $80,00 for the campsite and the permit to visit the area.
From Windhoek we took the route via the scenic Gamsberg and Kuiseb Passes. We’d seen the sign pointing to Homeb a few times before, but never been that way so we turned off the main road and headed into new territory. We’d been given a detailed map by the Parks Board, so were able to identify some landmarks along the way. Bakenkop was one of them and it was basically a koppie with a winding road leading up to a tower of sorts. Presumably a telephone or radio tower, I’m not sure.
Shortly beyond that, we came across a lonely tree in the middle of the veld and we could see that it had an enormous nest in it in which a pair of greater kestrels was nurturing a little family. We stopped to enjoy the sight of these birds, but unfortunately when Rob went a bit closer to try and photograph them, they all took to the skies. We drove off hoping that they’d come back soon and not be too disturbed by our visit.
The road then passed Mirabib, an enormous granite inselberg rising out of the plains. This area, covered with rich vegetation, also has a campsite, but we didn’t go and investigate as we wanted to set up our camp at Homeb before dark. Along the way we were amused to see dozens of rain gauges placed about a kilometer apart. Obviously they were bone dry because it was early in October, but judging by the number of them, someone was researching rain or fog in the area. They looked so out of the place in the desert that we couldn’t suppress our giggles every time another one came into sight.
The grass at that time of the year is quite yellow and not very long so one can see for miles and miles across the veld. The area looks quite deserted, apart from koorhaans and sand grouse close to the road, but occasionally one can spot the odd springbok, gemsbok or zebra grazing in the distance.
The approach to Homeb is quite dramatic and reminiscent of the Moon Landscape near Swakopmund. This area is described in Mary Seely’s book as the ‘Homeb Silts’ which are layers of soil laid down about 20 000 years ago when the Kuiseb River had a stronger flow and deposited mud and silt behind the rough walls of the canyon. On a walk the next day, we discovered an enormous conglomerate of calcrete embedded with round quartz stones. Apparently the quartz stones would have filled the river bed and then been slowly cemented together by calcium carbonate. When there was a change in the water flow channels excavated the area. It makes for an interesting visit and from afar it almost resembles Egyptian buildings on the banks of the Nile.
There was one lonely building at Homeb, which appeared deserted, but later turned out to be occupied. We passed this and drove on to the area designated as the campsite on the banks of the dry river bed. It was like an oasis, with trees lining the river bed as far as the eyes could see. Being the only people there, we had our pick of where to camp for the weekend. Even in October the heat was noticeable, so it was rather nice to have an abundance of shade to sit under.
The trees and shrubs found in the riverine forest were all different shapes and sizes. Many had been knocked over in floods, but those still rooted firmly were covered in pods and were home to lots of birds. Two species of fig, Ficus sycomorous and Ficus cordata were prevalent, as was the false ebony and the wild tamarisk. The trees and animals at Homeb have their water supplied by underground water stored in the sand of the dry river bed. Sitting in the campsite, it was hard to believe that beyond the leafy green trees was hard core desert!
As the crow flies, Homeb is about 75 kms inland from Sandwich Harbour on the coast. It is on the edge of the dune sea, so by turning in a full circle, when standing at a high point, one can see all different types of scenery from sand dunes, to veld plains and a lush river bed.
The campsite, like most sites in the Naukluft, could be considered rather inhospitable, with no ablution block or water. We didn’t mind this though as we were pretty self-sufficient and going without a proper loo and a shower for a night or two wasn’t the end of the world for us. All we had was a concrete braai area and a smelly long-drop, which I wouldn’t use because of the flies and creepy crawlies that lived in the hut.
Night fell early and we were treated to our usual display of the wondrous night sky. As we sat talking after our braai, a beautiful white owl flew overhead. We weren’t able to identify it, but hoped that it would be back the next night so that we could get a better look at it.
The next morning we packed our belongings into the bakkie, and armed with cameras and binoculars, walked across the dry river bed towards the sand dunes. It was quite difficult to get through all the trees that were growing in tangled profusion so closely together. Beyond these obstructions however, was a large open area and we were interested to see how eroded the ground was and split with deep cracks. Nearby we saw numerous tracks and footprints criss-crossing a small sand dune, obviously made by little creatures that had run through here earlier in the day or at night.
Once past the riverbed, it was a very steep climb up the sandy hill to the plains above. The view from up there was quite spectacular. One saw red dunes to the north and dark eroded landscape to the south, sliced in half by the riverbed and its green trees. It was really awesome to stand there and take it all in. The red sand dunes, which are the edge of the dune sea, formed a backdrop for the gravel dunes and plains covered with different grasses and succulents. One had to restrain oneself from taking too many photographs.
We set off across the plains to the dunes, where we hoped to see the Dune Larks. It was quite a long walk and the temperature was rising. After about forty-five minutes we reached the first of the dunes and it wasn’t long before we spotted the Dune Larks foraging around in the grass. They weren’t too keen on being photographed and flew off as soon as Rob approached them. However, between the two of us clicking away we managed to get some pictures of them to prove that we had actually seen them and for a positive identification. These larks must be well adapted to living in this arid area, because we didn’t see any other birds while we were there.
We stood for a while just marveling at the scenery and were rewarded by the sight of about five ostriches making their way over the dunes in the distance. Unfortunately they were too far away to get a decent photo, so we had to be content just watching them in such a beautiful setting.
As we made our way back to the campsite, we stopped to watch a rather magnificent looking lizard running across the hot sand. It looked like it has been wandering over an artist’s palette as its skin was a brightly coloured orange, with paler shades of brown and a bright white underbelly. It’s amazing how well these little creatures live in such a harsh environment. I wouldn’t have minded seeing the lizards that lift their legs up in turn to cool their feet from the hot sand, but we weren’t in luck. If this was indeed one of those lizards, the sand obviously wasn’t hot enough for it to do its little dance for us.
Once back at the camp, we decided to move the bakkie further into the shade so that we could have an afternoon sleep. One can move the vehicle with the rooftop tent up, but it has to be done carefully and slowly with me keeping up with the car as I hold the steps supporting the tent.
Our peaceful afternoon siesta was brought to an abrupt halt at about four o’clock when light aircraft started flying overhead. These planes bring visitors to see the dunes and the Kuiseb Canyon from the air and are very popular with tourists. In total we counted eleven planes in the space of about forty-five minutes – they must have been queuing up to take off from the Swakopmund Airport! I quite envied them, because the views from up there must have been superb.
We loved the idea of having the place to ourselves, a luxury that was to be short lived when a car pulled in and a lone man set up camp a few metres away from us. It’s amazing how one immediately feels put out by this, but a trip to an overcrowded New Zealand campsite put it all in perspective for us! We are so lucky in Namibia – the remoteness of the campsites usually makes for very quiet and people-free weekends away. And who were we to deny someone else the joy of spending time in that lovely place. When it became apparent that our fellow camper was there to photograph birds, it seemed rather a shame that we hadn’t made any effort to chat to him. Perhaps he would have thought it an intrusion if we had though.
Much to our disappointment, the enormous white owl didn’t come back again. Instead we were visited by a rather inquisitive white rooster who made himself at home in the camp. He greedily devoured the bread crumbs that I fed him, then spent the next half hour trying to digest them. At five the next morning his loud crows woke us up, a bit early for a Sunday, but we forgave him. When we finally rose for breakfast, he was strutting around the camp making guttural noises and pecking at the ground for bits of bread.
Homeb is delightful and actually exceeded my expectations, so it was rather sad to have to pack up and leave. As we had a valid permit for the Naukluft we decided to make the most of it and visit a few of the other view sites in the Park. And when a Parks Board Ranger stopped us about twenty kilometers from Homeb we were rather glad that we’d taken the trouble to buy the permit.
We took a different route back to the main road, this time passing some old mines, the Hope Mine and the Gorob Mine. We had to stop and photograph a sign proclaiming that we were crossing the Tropic of Capricon (sic). Our next stop was marked on the map as Zebra Pan. It consisted of a huge reservoir on the edge of the enormous dry pan. With no animals to be seen, it didn’t instill any desire to linger and we pushed on to the other side of the main road.
Here the scenery was wonderful and we saw lots of different buck along the way as we headed towards Blutkopje, an enormous granite outcrop on the eastern side of the Park. This area is much rockier than where we’d started out, with lots of different grasses and quiver trees dotting the landscape. Blutkopje was quite impressive, just by its sheer size, but it was very hot there and we battled to find a shady spot to have our lunch.
With time running out we rejoined the main road and made our way home on yet another new route, via the Bosua Pass. This route was not as pretty as it could have been, as huge fires had swept over hundreds of kilometers and we seemed to drive endlessly past depressing blackened landscape. It was a relief to get back into the Windhoek district which suddenly seemed quite lush after the devastation of the fire.
It had been a wonderful opportunity to explore more of what the Naukluft had to offer and we thoroughly enjoyed the weekend. I doubt whether the remoteness of Homeb would appeal to the masses, but we loved it and I’d love to go back there for another visit.
A Weekend in Omaruru – July 2006
Most Namibians would probably look at you with disbelief if you told them you’d gone camping in Omaruru for the weekend. Let’s face it, Omaruru isn’t high on the list of places where people stay for longer than necessry, but we’d heard, through the birding club, that the birding there was really good, so decided on a longer visit. Incidentally, Omaruru is a popular stopover point for people traveling between Swakopmund and Etosha .
Our weekend trips have to be planned around driving not more than 250 – 300 kms so that we can reach our destination before dark if we leave at lunchtime on a Friday. We prefer not to drive at night because of the animals on the roads. So Omaruru, about 250 kms away from Windhoek, fits the bill. Driving from Windhoek to the coast, it is only a short trip along the C33 from Karibib to reach Omaruru.
“Omaruru” is a Herero name and means ‘bitter thick milk’. The area abounds in green bitter bushes (Pechuelloeschae leubnitziae) that attract the cattle grazing in the area. Unfortunately these bushes taint the milk and the meat of the animals, hence the name.
We booked ourselves into the Omaruru Rest Camp, on the outer edge of the town. The camp is secured by a high electrified fence which rather irritatingly sparked the whole time we were there. We settled for a site in the farthest corner, right up against the fence under an enormous tree, which gave us an element of privacy from the only other caravan in the camp. We could also look through the fence into the nature reserve next door and see quite a few animals whilst relaxing in our camping chairs.
The birdlife was quite prolific so we spent some happy (but frustrating) hours trying to photograph a pair of Green-winged Pytilias that inhabited the little forest at the bottom of the camp. There were also lots of Guinea Fowl wandering around as if they owned the place. Two were quite interesting – the first had only one leg, which didn’t seem to deter him at all from keeping up with the rest of the flock, and the second one appeared to be an albino as its feathers were almost white compared to the rest that were all dark grey. So they provided us with a bit of entertainment, especially when we were in our rooftop tent and they couldn’t see us watching them.
After an early breakfast we set off to explore the area. We started by walking down to the river and watching the birds in the reeds. The Omaruru River is enormous and must look quite spectacular when in flood. Of course we’ve only ever seen it bone dry so have to imagine what it must look like after heavy rains. The river bed is very wide with reeds and bushes growing everywhere. I’ve since heard that it is a favourite spot for snakes – thank goodness I didn’t know that when we took our morning walk that day.
The town has quite a history so there are a number of interesting buildings and places to visit. We spent some time looking at the rusty old farming implements outside the museum, which unfortunately was closed on a Saturday. This building is the oldest in town and was originally a mission station occupied by a Rhenish missionary, Gottlieb Viehe, whose claim to fame was translating the New Testament, the liturgy, prayers and catechisms into Herero.
Across the road we wandered around a little graveyard where a large headstone marked the grave of Herero Chief Wilhelm Zeraua, a local hero who is still venerated today, years after his death. It’s always interesting to look around graveyards , but often they are in a state of decay and one always leaves feeling rather saddened by the air of neglect that hangs over them.
No visit to Omaruru is complete without going to The Sand Dragon, a delightful restaurant and tea garden in the main street of the town. Its shady garden with tables under huge umbrellas, and fascinating root carvings and water features, is a must to experience. Inside they have glass cases displaying semi-precious stones, desert roses and other interesting Namibian curios. We found their Gemsbok steaks delicious and very reasonably priced.
I just had to photograph a quaint little Lutheran Church that was painted a shocking pink. This old building, which almost sits on the pavement, can probably only hold about twenty-five worshippers, so one has to assume that they don’t have a very big Lutheran following in Omaruru.
It was starting to get really hot by the time we made our way to the far end of the town to an interesting place called Tikoloshe. A huge thatched building was under construction and seated on the ground underneath this structure were about four or five men carving animals out of enormous tree roots. These were no normal carvers, as they were using electric chain saws to shape the roots into amazing animals. The carvings are really well done and we saw all kinds of animals from oversized warthogs to giraffes, elephants and dolphins. The workshop is full of carvings that show a wealth of talent and imagination – just a few nicks and cuts in a root and voila! there is a recognizable animal. They are rather pricey though and the market definitely seems to be aimed at the well-to-do foreign tourists, so although enchanted with their wares, we left empty-handed.
From here we made our way across the river to see the Franketurn, or Franke Tower on the southern outskirts of the town. This round tower, with an enormous cannon guarding its entrance, was built in 1908 by the residents of Omaruru to honour Cpt Victor Franke, who saved the town from a siege by the Hereros in 1904. We couldn’t go inside because it was locked, but if we’d had the energy we could have collected a key from a nearby Bed & Breakfast. We gave it a miss and headed back to the campsite for a rest.
We read in a local news sheet that Omaruru has its own chocolate factory, but we didn’t manage to find out where it was. Having seen everything of interest that Omaruru had to offer, we decided to head off early the next morning to Kalkveld, a little village about 67 km from Omaruru. Our guide book informed us that if we turned off at Kalkveld and drove for another 19kms we would come upon the farm, Otjihaenamaparero (try and say that when you’ve had a few!!) famous for dinosaur tracks on their property.
On the drive to the dinosaur footprints the road winds past fascinating mountains sculptured by the Waterberg Thrust – a geological formation that I’ll talk about when I describe our trip to the Waterberg. On arrival, we paid our N$20.00 each and then drove to a rather nice campsite where we had to leave the car. From here we walked the short distance over the hill to the site of the dinosaur footprints. The National Monument Council has erected a small information board that explains how these tracks came to be here.
“Some 200 million years ago a variety of reptiles lived in Southern Africa, amongst which were dinosaurs that walked on their hind legs. Here, their tracks are visible in Etjo sandstone, formed from wind-deposited sand which was redistributed by irregular rains. The animals left their tracks on rain-soaked sand or on the shores of ancient lakes. Through the ages this sand, with the tracks, was gradually covered by layers of sediment and hardened into stone. Erosion has subsequently exposed the tracks.”
So there we were staring down at the fossil tracks made by large dinosaurs (possibly the Ceratosauria, a carnivore of the Therapoda order) that lived millions of years ago. It was quite weird thinking about a time frame like that and actually seeing evidence of these heavy prehistoric three-toed bipedal creatures. There were only about 30 tracks, (measuring 45 x 35 cm with a distance between each one of approx 70 – 90 cm), that ran in two directions across the sloping rock slab, so it was rather fortunate that they were preserved so well for us to see so many years after their makers roamed the earth.
These weren’t the only prints on the farm. Quite close to the campsite we found some others made by a significantly smaller dinosaur (thought to be a Syntarsus). Again, there weren’t too many of them, so we were grateful that the conditions at the time were just right to preserve them. It is believed that because of the extreme weather conditions, these dinosaurs became extinct not long after they left their footprints. All in all a fascinating site to visit.
There were quite a few birds flying around the campsite, and Rob managed to photograph a Crimson breasted Shrike and a Rock Thrush. We also spotted a Pygmy Falcon, but he must have been camera shy because he flew off as soon as Rob tried to get a picture of him.
We had a picnic lunch at the campsite before heading for home. The dirt road that we joined after leaving the farm took us through a nature reserve, but as we didn’t see any animals we wondered why they had huge gates at either end of the reserve. The road then joined the B2 on the northern side of Okahandja, thus completing a circular drive since we had come through on Friday.
Seeing the dinosaur tracks was for me, the highlight of the weekend. I’m sure that Rob felt the same. Omaruru was worth the visit but I doubt whether I would go back to camp there for a weekend, although the campsite was very nice. Once you’ve seen all there is to see at Omaruru, there really isn’t much to draw you back for a second stay. If they could guarantee a flooded river, well that would change everything!