My first day started out a little earlier than planned – I did not realize Namibia time is an hour earlier than Botswana – ended up rising at 4 am rather than 5 as planned. I will sleep well tonight – although I may find the absence of hippos grunting and baboons barking a bit disconcerting. The flight from Windhoek was interesting – began like a major flight, with security check and everything; pilot and co-pilot – and the plane was a six seater with me as the only passenger. Starkly beautiful desert mountain country, deep box canyons carved by the rather scarce rains, scrubby trees scattered here and there. We landed on a gravelly airstrip hardly distinguishable from the surrounding terrain – disconcerting to hear the crunch of rolling gravel under the wheels instead of pavement.
I was met by my guide, Mervin, who called a San tracker when I told him I wanted to walk before lunch. The tracker, Gideon, is a nice guy, very knowledgeable, good at explaining the finer features of the desert and how to track animals ranging from oryx (plentiful around here) to the small beetles that gather moisture from fresh antelope droppings, and who must dig a hole in a firmer spot of sand to keep from dying in the midday sun. He also showed me the burrow of the white dancing lady spider. The female constructs a trap door, just like the trapdoor spider in Queensland – but this spider is not very poisonous if at all. He showed me how to track the spider, the little jumping mouse, the local ground bustard, and chameleons – with his considerable help I managed to see and photograph one of the latter. Apparently they are not that easy to find and see, so I felt great about it.
I am writing this on a lounge chair in the shade of my tent-cabin, which is actually quite luxurious – gorgeous view of the desert mountain across the valley. The resort I located near the crest of a large dune, above he airstrip. This place is very different from Botswana of course. I was warned not to expect to see many animals, but already I have seen a number of them, enough to satisfy me, and the landscape really is beautiful, in much the same stark way that southern California is. It appears that a major oryx trail runs across an open area right in front of our tents so I will see plenty of them.
Lunch was great – smoked salmon on an avocado slice, chicken salad, passion fruit cream custard. Afterward I went for a vigorous 35 minute walk over a couple of dunes, which left me feeling great after such a long spell of idleness, then sat on the deck in the shade until 4:00, time for my afternoon / evening drive.
The afternoon / evening drive was nice – dunes in the evening twilight. Dinner was spectacular. It began with the kitchen staff humorously presenting the menu – first the chef explained each course in English, then one of his helpers translated it into one of the local languages, clicks and all, singing it. Very fun. The main course was springbok steak – which I had been hoping for – cooked to perfection, juicy and tasty. I ate slowly savoring each bite, so as usual was the last to finish.
The kitchen staff here, like at Selinda but in contrast to Kwara, take pains to assure, when the desert is flour-based, that my gluten-free dessert is of high quality. I am beginning to regard that as a sign of true excellence. At dinner the dessert for me was a small light crème with a delicious pear poached in red wine. For lunch both days it was a truly wonderful fruit salad.
Second day started with another walk with Gideon. We didn’t see many animals but he told several wonderful stories about the beliefs and customs of the San people. When we came to a fairy circle, he explained some of the large variety of scientific theories about them – he favors the theory that termites clear the circle and keep it clear. But his people teach that the souls of their ancestors gather to dance in a circle and the fairy circles are the dance spaces.
When we came to a certain low bush called ostrich grass that has long straight stems, lined with spiky thorns like the acacia tree, he told the most charming story about his people’s ancient marriage customs. When the elders decide a young man is mature enough to be married they visit a neighboring tribe and negotiate for a bride. Then they tell the groom’s cousin to tell him to prepare himself. The elders prepare a house for the couple, then when time for the wedding arrives, they build a fire. The bride, covered with red powder, sits inside the new house. Her family gather on one side of the fire, his family on the other side. Her grandparents come and sing and dance outside the house until she comes out. Then she leads them to the fire, singing and dancing, and pauses in front of her family, where she continues singing and dancing. The groom then leads his elders, singing and dancing, toward the fire. Along the way, he gathers branches from the thorny bush, shaped like arrows, and makes a makeshift bow – not a real bow, but a ceremonial one. When he reaches the fire. he shoots the spiky arrow so that it sticks to the animal pelt she is wearing. Then he continues around the fire to his family. The bride takes the thorn branch from the pelt, and sticks it to her breast, signifying “this breast belongs to you forever.” The then proceeds to the groom, removes the thorn branch, and hands it to the groom. He sticks it to his breast, signifying “my heart is yours forever.” Then the elders of the two families lead them to their new house, where they instruct them in the ways of a marriage couple. However, the marriage is not yet complete, and they may not yet share a bed. The next day, the young man must go out hunting alone, kill an Oryx, and bring it back to camp by himself. He may not return until this task is complete. Once he returns with the Oryx, he has demonstrated that he has sufficient hunting skill and strength to become fully a man, and the marriage is complete.
The other story, when we came to a plant called euphorbia (sp?) that looks a lot like a cactus, tall and round, but belongs to a different plant group entirely, he explained that the milky juice from the plant is deadly poison: if it touches your skin it causes a painful burn-like rash; if it gets in your eyes it can cause blindness, and if it is ingested, death comes quickly. (Other related plants are less strongly poisonous, but still troublesome.) He explained how his people discovered which plants can be eaten and which are poisonous. If they chance upon something that looks like it might be good to eat, they prepare it and feed it to a very old member of the tribe, who can no longer walk and no longer participate in the functioning of the tribe. If the old person survives and experiences no problems, the new plant becomes part of their diet.
After breakfast Mervin took me for a longer, rambling drive past the original Wolwedan camp and down onto the plain, where most of the animals other than oryx are to be found. We did see several springbok – beautiful animals – so I now know what I feasted on last night so gloriously. We saw one ostrich at some distance – barely close enough to photograph. At lunch I talked to another guest who saw both of those plus zebras and baboons. Luck – or perhaps the quality of the guide. Melvin is nice, but doesn’t really rise to the standards set by the guides I had at the last couple of camps.
Overall assessment: The dunes are quite impressive and quite beautiful – but not more so than several places in the American west. The staff at Wolwedons are very good, kitchen staff excellent – with one exception. It seems all the resorts have a tradition of a “sundowner” – they pack some light snacks and drinks – gin and tonic, wine, whatever, and have a little cocktail party out somewhere in the bush. At Selinda the staff always packed things I can eat; at Kwara they never did; here there will be a few pieces of fruit or, tonight, some bacon wrapped around olives (pits still in them – careful!) But there were also some things clearly made of wheat flour. Similarly, they deliver coffee makings first thing in the morning, with some cookies that also looked suspicious to me – no explanation whether I could eat them or not, so I did not. Otherwise the staff handled the challenge of my dietary restriction quite competently. My guide was indifferent – not terrible but not brilliant either. Gideon, the San who took me for walks was much better – more knowledgeable I think, quite funny, enjoyable to be with. I think Mervin got ticked off at Gideon because Gideon explained the nature and uses of several of the plants, and co-opted part of what Melvin planned to say. I’m sure there’s enough about this desert for both of them if they really knew their stuff.
I enjoyed the visit – two days was definitely enough, and I suspect there are other places in this region that I would have found more worthwhile. I later learned from another visitor that there are Neolithic cliff art sites and an interesting cave nearby – either or both of which I would have enjoyed far more than driving around looking at sand dunes and oryx for hours.
I hope I will see some of the really interesting desert plants like the baobab tree, for example. It was interesting, however, to see how much plant and animal life can be supported in a desert that gets maybe an inch or two of rain per year – just off what the plants can extract from the fogs that blow in off the Pacific.
Tok Tokkie Trail
This three day hike was definitely the highlight of my time in Namibia. We first visited a sustainability training center, NaDEET (Namibia Desert Environmental Education Center) which was quite interesting. They’re doing some amazing stuff – recycling, solar power, minimizing water and power use. Then we arrived at a waterhole where we began the first leg of the trip, about 2 miles over a series of dunes – not large as the dunes in this area often seem to be. One member of the party, Ruby (from Texas struggled with the first three dunes – her husband, Adam, and I hung back with her to minimize discouragement, but finally she asked the guide, Richardo, ro arrange for the truck with our supplies to pick her up along the way. She rode in the truck the rest of the way, probably a good thing since it got more difficulty. She had recently had heart surgery and gotten out of shape and had not got back into shape. Two French couples made up the party – very nice people with good sense of humor.
The first day’s short hike ended at a fixed camp atop a large broad dune, with a beautiful panoramic view. What a camp! The staff, Lulu (the chef) and Willie had laid out army cots with thick mattresses and bedrolls for me and each couple, spread out over the dune probably 30 meters apart, each with a little solar powered light, a rug to step on to keep from tracking sand into bed, and three little camp tables. Two toilets, a good distance from any “desert suite,” were marked with solar lanterns and a signaling system, white on one side, red (occupied) on the other. In the center was a camp kitchen where Lulu worked her magic, with a canvas wall on the upwind side, and a counter perpendicular to it. A few meters from the counter stood a long table, spread with table clothes, wine glasses, and flatware. The table was set with four solar lights, each embedded into the top of a pint mason jar so the light pointed down into the jar; in the bottom of the jar, a bit of sand with topical items like a little sculpture of the tok tokkie beetle or a bit of oryx dung and acacia fruit. Drinks were served as soon as we had settled in drinks were served.
We sipped, admiring and photographing the sunset and examining the ever-present oryx through binoculars. After a while we seated ourselves and Lulu and Willie came out to announce dinner – as at some of the other camps, Lulu in English and Willie translating into his own childhood language.. I don’t recall all the dishes except that they were uniformly excellent – one I do strongly recall was the kudu steak, served the second night, which was tender and very tasty, kind of like the best elk I’ve ever had, but with a slightly sweeter and very complex, subtle taste.
Breakfast was an assortment of cereals, yogurt, fruits, cheese and meat, and bread and jam. Lunch, left for us along the trail, was sandwiches. They took very good care of me, with gluten free cornbread, and gluten free versions of all the other dishes, including dessert.
The second day we hiked for an hour or two over a series of ever higher dunes, then off onto rocky terrain, then onto a rocky trail that wound around the side of a mountain called “horse-shoe mountain” because of its shape. In addition to the ubiquitous oryx we saw a few springbok and several herds of zebras. We did not make very fast progress, because Richardo kept stopping us to point out some interesting feature of flora and fauna, including the dancing white lady, a rather large trapdoor spider that digs a hole a foot or more into the dune, lines it with silk, and constructs a trap door at the top of silk – like the trapdoor spiders we saw in Australia. You can find them by the subtle crescent-shaped indentation in the sand above the trapdoor.
The trail steepened and got rougher as we progressed around the curve of the mountain toward a pass between it and another mountain, a total climb of about 400 meters. On top we stopped for tea / coffee and chocolate cake – Lulu provided chocolate covered cornbread for me; not quite the same, but quite good. Then we headed down toward the plain below – a much rougher descent. One of the French ladies was lagging behind, so I lent her one of my two trekking poles, which she later said made it much easier for her. At the bottom we walked for over a mile across a field strewn with rocks from pebble to small boulder in size, rounded the foot of another mountain, crossed a series of four increasingly high dunes, to our second camp. It was set up as before, except that the “suites” were set up in hollow spots in the top of the dune. Not as convenient for seeing the horizon but otherwise quite cozy.
Each night, the stars were spectacular until the rising moon, 4 days past full, put an end to star-gazing. Everyone went to bed soon after dinner, around 8 or 8:30; it was very pleasant, almost magical to lie under a cozy feather bed / duvet, feeling the cool breeze on my cheek and looking up at the most brilliant display of stars I’ve seen since my childhood (before all the desert entry farms filled Idaho skies with dust). In the morning, I woke up around 4:30 each day, with the smell of dew-wet grass, which lingered for about an hour until about the time Willie brought around coffee and hot water to wash, when the warming air had dried it all off the grass.
The setup for washing was quite interesting – a sort of plastic bucket on a folding 4 legged rack with a tin can to dip into the water after Willie had poured in the hot water – each can had four holes punched in the bottom so when you hung it from the top of one of the legs, four soft streams came out to wash with.
The third day we walked over dune after dune, a total of over two hours, back to the headquarters shared by the tok tokkie trail people and NaDEET. There we had refreshments, said goodbyes, and my driver arrived to take me to Kulala Desert Lodge.
Kulala Desert Lodge
This place is situated across a dry wash from the dunes – did manage to see some Ostriches here. The first evening my guide, Cliff, just took me out for a brief drive then up onto a high ridge for the ubiquitous :sundowner” – gin and tonic and some light snacks, this time stuff that I could safely eat including jerky made from kudu which is very good. Dinner both nights was good – I was spoiled by some of the previous resorts. The room is comfortable, with a nice, fairly modern bath.
The one full day I spent here was a lot better than the first afternoon and evening, which were rather boring. It started with early breakfast and a drive out to a famous pan – a dried up seasonal pond/lake – overlooked by a 350 meter dune called “big daddy.” A group of four friends from Oklahoma joined me; they are all nice people with a good sense of humor so I enjoyed being with them. Two are retired doctors, the other two geologists – very convenient; they explained many of the features we saw, including dune shapes.
Along the way we stopped for a brief walk that included a look at the dancing lady white spider, aka trapdoor spider. Cliff actually dug it out for us so we could see it – much larger than I thought it would be; I took a few photos of it. We all took several pictures of interesting dunes along the way. When we reached “Big Daddy” one of the other guys and I decided to climb it; the others decided to climb a shorter, 100 meter high dune and we decided to meet in the pan. About two thirds of the way up the other guy turned back so I plodded on – climbing sand is not at all easy. At the top there was a group of what must have been thirty US high school girls; I could barely find a place to stand on the top much less actually take pictures. Finally they left, giggling and yelling all the way, and I was able to take some pictures before I descended, half glissading in the heavy sand. It took 50 minutes to go up, 10 to go down. A lot of fun, and the first really strenuous exercise since leaving Germany.
After lunch, we met at 2:30 for a drive out to a very old canyon, eroded by occasional floods from a sedimentary rock that combines sand with pebbles and rocks up to several pounds. Very interesting. Another sundowner, and back for dinner.
The dunes area of Namibia is a bit of a letdown after Botswana. It is promoted for the scenery – which would be spectacular for someone who lives in Eureope or eastern U.S. It reminded me of nothing so much as New Mexico with oryx, zebras, and a handful of ostriches. I would have been happy with the Tok Tokkie trail and maybe one full day to see a few of the other sights.
Wolwedans is a pretty luxurious place – excellent food, well managed, but a mediocre guide and not much to look at other than sand dunes and oryx. Kulala is comfortable and well-maintained but not nearly as well managed. Several frustrations: I did not get hooked up to wi-fi until about 30 minutes the morning I left; other guests said the had problems, but most were able to hook up once in a while. I would get connected to the kulala server but “no internet service.” There was supposedly a password but the login page never showed up. Staff gave contradictory and confusing answers to questions like meal times – I ended up hanging around the dining room from 6:30 until 7 the first night, waiting for service; the second night, I joined my friends at 6:40 and they were already seated and ordering. Laundry: I was told it would be picked up in the late afternoon – others were told first thing inn the morning. I gave up and washed a few things that absolutely had to be washed in the rather small sink. The guide, Cliff, was better than Mervin, at Wolwedans, but not up to the Botswana guides. (At least he doesn’t drench himself in perfume as several of the Kwara guides do.) Kulala uses closed-top vehicles instead of the open-top used elsewhere, which means two very wide blind spots, one on each side. As a result it was impossible to see when we were approaching something interesting until we were almost past it – the only ostrich I saw that was close enough to see (or photograph) clearly, I barely saw as we sped by because of that blind spot. By far the best here in the dunes area is the Tok Tokkie trail, which was magic from start to finish.
Several people I met here rented cars to drive around southern Africa, and all swear by it, as a chance to really see the countryside. But when I flew out toward Damaraland, I feel I saw the countryside as well as I would have on the road – a lot faster, with a lot less hassle. I can see how it would work with 3 or 4 people traveling together, though.
This area is radically different from the dunes.. This is lava rock over limestone and sandstone, so it is dotted with flat-topped buttes reminiscent of much of the intermountain west. The camp setup is familiar – very comfortable, open tent rooms with a clean, very serviceable bath; meals served at a common table – only ten rooms, so not a huge crowd of guests. Routine is similar to other camps – staff sings and dances in native tongue at dinner time, great food – very nice. Good guide; very interested in rocks.
I discovered what may be the reason for the gluten problem I had – the person who greeted me told me they had been informed that I have “a preference for gluten-free.” I quickly informed him it is not a preference but a medical necessity – and made sure to talk with the cook as well, which I will continue to do. Later, at lunch the second day, they served a rice dish, then came to inform me that it wasn’t gluten-free and wanted to take it away. So there is a good deal of confusion, understandable I suppose. On the 2nd night they led us down to an outdoor place they have fenced off and set up for outdoor dining – a great experience overall. It was somewhat spoiled for me when the server brought me a dessert, then came back and took it away from me – apparently it was not g-f. Usually they bring some kind of substitute but this time they didn’t. I don’t really care, but after a while one of the women in the foursome sharing a car with me looked at me and asked “Aren’t you going to get a dessert?” For some reason that underscored for me the overall confusion. The next morning the manager apologized to me, which made me feel somewhat better about it.
The g-f issue intruded in a more unpleasant way the last day of my stay there – I woke up in the middle of the night with gluten poisoning; as a result, reluctant to get to far from a bathroom I gave up a sunrise walk I had planned. This was the third such incident in two weeks, so the consequences were more pronounced than usual – I’m not sure what is happening, but I suspect the chefs are using some bottled sauce on some of the steak dishes without reading the ingredients label fully. One more example of the general lack of understanding about this. I will have to do more investigating.
The first afternoon we visited a local village – people who were relocated to this wasteland from South Africa not long before South Africa lost its control over Namibia. They have adapted to the landscape, have gardens and livestock – but their cut of the tourist dollars is very welcome. If I understand correctly, the local population gets about a third of what we pay, which makes me feel considerably better about the costs. However, as I chatted with my guide, Teek, later, he gave a somewhat more cynical view. We visited a pretty little valley the afternoon / evening of the second day, with short cropped grass and several beef cattle, many of which did not look terribly fat. Teek talked about how desperately difficult farming is in this area – little water, poor forage, especially in a drought, poor prices for the beef. The third morning, we visited what had been a similarly pretty little valley, which farmers had burned from one end to the other in an attempt to make more room for grass for their cattle. Teek also saw lion tracks – he drove to the farm and talked to the farmer who said lions had killed one of his dogs and injured the other the previous night. We talked about the conflict between farmers and wildlife, especially lions – Teek said the farmers were supposed to get paid for any cattle killed by wildlife, but said it rarely happens, and that much less of the tourist money makes its way down to the local people than the official line suggests. It was a bit depressing but not surprising. Teek did have an optimistic side – Namibia, which is quite a new country, is trying to learn from the mistakes of other countries, notably Zimbabwe. However, prices rise fast, especially for housing, and the value from natural resources do not make its way back to the people.
In search of the wild elephant.
The second morning we went on a game drive, in search of a newborn baby elephant. Along the way we saw a flock of ostriches, several herds of springbok, some mountain zebras silhouetted against the sky, a couple of jackals at a bit of a distance. We found tracks from a couple of lone males, then Teek went to where he thought the main herd would be, and found a huge bunch of prints, what looked like 20 or so elephants. We followed the elephant trail as they zig-zagged through the spring-fed valley, found several tracks headed for a rocky hill – we could hardly believe they would make a newborn elephant cross such difficult terrain, but Teek drove around the hill. He heard over the radio from another guide who had seen sign of them going up a different valley; we met the other guide, who went off to the left following the trail. Teek, on a hunch, drove up to the top of a rocky little hill and stopped at what looked to me like the edge of a cliff. He climbed to the top of the hill, swept the valley with his binoculars, and saw a couple of them in the trees. So we all clambered back into the vehicle and – to my surprise – he drove over what I had interpreted as the edge of a cliff, actually just a steep rock-strewn slope. We bounced down over the rocks and sped toward the site, where we saw several elephants browsing on the tree branches (I got a nice shot of one elephant with a branch in its mouth) and several others, including mother and baby, in the shadows beyond. The guide said the distance from where they had been previously spotted was about 40 km – a long way for a newborn baby, I would think. We watched them, relaxing in the shade of an acacia, for a couple of hours. I got some really nice photos of the baby, including a blurred shot of it falling down and some nice shots of its mother helping it back to its feet. I also got some shots of other slightly older juveniles playing and rolling around under the feet of and in the shadow of the adult elephants, which makes it slightly difficult to following the action.
Tracking the elephants: They always set the hind foot down on and slightly ahead of the front foot, so you can tell the direction of movement by which circle is complete. When fresh, each print has ripple marks, which fade with time and wind. They also leave signs like fresh droppings with still wet sand from the urine, and bits of broken branches they have ripped off of the trees for food. Teek, like the other really good guides I’ve had, makes a lot of guesses based on his knowledge of the herd’s typical behavior and the terrain of the landscape – sometimes he’s wrong but often he’s spectacularly right.
The following day my companions left so I was Teek’s only guest. I wanted to visit a nearby petroglyph site (which I later discovered is a world heritage site). We drove around first – viewing the burntout valley, etc. seeing a flock of ostriches and several other animals. Teek told me that the ostriches have an interesting social structure. The alpha female lays eggs and the other females lay eggs in the same nest, but only the alpha male and female tend the eggs and then the chicks.
The petroglyphs are really great, although difficult to photograph because of the odd angles and glare reflecting off them. Some of my photos are very good but many are hard to read. They drew by scratching off “desert varnish,” like the Navaho, but they often engraved the picture much deeper. The only abstractions are circles with a dot inside, a symbol for water. Otherwise, local animals prevail: giraffes and hippos, which are also symbols of water. There were several varieties of antelope, several elephants, some quite lovely.
After I had toured the rock art, Teek asked if I wanted to go back to the lodge or if I was willing to go with him to see if we could find where the elephant herd went. That sounded like an interesting adventure so I said “let’s go.” We had some coffee, some g-f chocolate muffins the staff had made for me and some of what I thought were g-f chocolate cookies (a later experience cast doubt on that – but that is a different story.)
Teek drove up the valley, watching for tracks crossing the road. We saw a couple of single sets of tracks, but did not find the main herd tracks until we had reached a point where the valley started narrowing. He drove across the valley and back, then drove to the opening of a steep draw and stopped. He said they were probably heading on their annual migration to the foot of a large mountain some distance away, and they would either follow the road as it wound around the mountain or go up one of these draws. We started to walk up the steep rocky hill with the initial idea of climbing to the ridge to see if we could see them, then Teek motioned me over to where he was, to see if we could see tracks in the sandy bottom of the creek bed. We didn’t, so we circled back to the vehicle – a nice 40 minute walk in all. He went back to the road and drove along it for a ways, then turned up a rough track, up to the top of the ridge. We got out and looked down into another draw, where we saw several of the elephants, far below us. Teek started laughing, I think because he had managed to figure out where they were. However, as we drove back to the lodge, he mulled over the issue of leading a newborn elephant calf over such difficult terrain, and decided at least the mothers of the two young calves must have stayed behind with the calves.
Teek also explained some differences between the desert-adapted and other elephants. The desert elephants never tear down trees or even break off large branches; they never stay at one water hole too long – he says they preserve their environment. They do rip small branches off a particular tree, strip the bark (which is nutritious) and leave the leaves for other animals – the trail of stripped branches with fresh unwilted leaves is one of the signs we had used to trail them.
Desert Rhino Camp – final Namibia destination
Basically similar layout with one addition – a self-appointed “pet” jackal, a nearly grown pup who hangs around in the mornings and evenings in spite of the staff’s attempt to discourage it. Very pretty animal who doesn’t understand the law against feeding wild animals or making pets of them.
The first day there were only two other guests, an elderly couple who left Zimbabwe 40 years ago and now live in South Africa, Janet and Dusty. Dusty is very interested in photographing birds, particularly the more challenging very small birds. The result can be rather boring for a non “birder” – as long as five minutes at a time sitting in the middle of nowhere while he tries to focus his camera on a rather boring-looking sparrow-sized grey bird with a slightly long beak. Otherwise, the first evening’s game drive was pretty interesting – saw a mother hyena nursing her pups, a couple of jackals, a desert giraffe. We came back to meet the trackers for Save The Rhino who were scheduled to help us find a rhino the next day, then had a very nice dinner in a dining place set up next to the small pool – and first met the self-appointed pet jackal.
The next morning it was up at 4:30, breakfast at 5, and off to find rhinos at 5:15. As we bounced along over the miserable roads (I finally took a photo of one) we saw several other animals (after the sun rose) including more giraffes, lots of springbok and steenbok and of course the ever-present oryx. (Not to mention several more tiny grey birds with subtle distinguishing features and a few larger, actually interesting birds.) Finally the guide got a radio call from the trackers who had found a rhino for us. We drove up to where they had stopped their vehicle, got out, and followed them, single file, along the road to a point downwind and slightly uphill, maybe 50 meters from the animal, who was contentedly and noisily munching on a low bush near some euphorbia bushes, and continued to do so while we took photos for about 20 minutes.
There are several varieties of euphorbia – all of which are quite toxic to most animals. The euphorbia bush is interesting – rhinos and kudu are the only animals who can safely eat it, and it forms an important part of their diet. There are two varieties around here, one has fibrous long grey green stems, which both rhinos and kudus eat. The poison in their blood kills parasites. The animals get moisture as well as nutrition from the bushes. The other looks like a cactus, with thick ribbed stalks lined with spiky thorns. The black rhino uses his pointed prehensile lip to strip off the thorns to get at the stalk - white rhinos do not eat them.
After our time was up (guests are rarely allowed longer than 20 minutes with a rhino, less if the animal seems at all disturbed) we drove around some more, saw several ostriches, mostly at a distance and running away. We also stopped at an area thick with Welvicha, which I had noticed and wondered about. They have only two broad leaves, which usually split into thinner sections as they grow. The leaves are a dark grey-green, turning brown then grey as the ends age and die; they can live over a century, grow very slow, and look like they are almost dead the entire time. The leaves have a leathery or plastic texture; the male has thin pollen stems, the female fruits that look like small upside-down pine cones. They do not actually flower – they belong to a category of their own, with no relatives. Elephants sometimes rip them up to eat the roots; antelope sometimes chew the leaves for the moisture and nutrients and spit out the fibrous remains.
We also stopped and tasted the brilliant green ostrich salad plant, a succulent that is not poisonous and is rather tasty – a hint of lime – but survives a thirsty and hungry world because its leaves are exceedingly high in mineral salts – it tastes like something you might rub on a margarita glass, but not something to put in a salad. (I guess the local people have not discovered margaritas or it would be endangered.)
Overall assessment: It took a while to get used to the different rhythms etc. in Namibia but once I did I have found it worthwhile. It adds considerably to my understanding of Africa generally, and also added a lot to my understanding of several species, especially elephants. It is very interesting to observe how the behavior of identical species is adapted to two remarkably different ecologies. Namibia itself is beautiful but in a harsh, forbidding way, not unlike Death Valley. The desert is 60 million years old, and 60 million years of wind have blown away most particles big enough to be picked up by wind, leaving a landscape that is either strewn with rocks of various sizes or covered with dunes from the sand that blows in from the Atlantic. This sand itself has an interesting history – it washes down the Orange River, is carried north by an ocean current, washes up on the shore of Namibia and is blown in by the prevailing winds which blow from the west.
The camps are almost all quite well run, with excellent food and friendly, enthusiastic staff. They tried hard to understand and deal with my dietary restriction, with mixed success – the failures are probably due to food industry labeling practices, although I’ve not yet worked out exactly what is happening. Watching the guides at work here, as in Botswana, was a big part of the pleasure of the game drives and walks. They know their animals well, and approach tracking as an exercise in puzzle solving. They tend to begin with a “canned” package that will appeal to the average tourist, but I found that showing a consistent interest in culture and animal behavior encourages them to open up and share much wider range of knowledge – a huge advantage of staying longer at one place rather than hopping from one camp to another as many tourists do. Longer stays also makes it possible to observe and understand a wider range of animal behavior and ecological relationships.
Flying in and out is interesting – gravel air strips; the guide is expected to get you there a half hour early and drive the full length of the strip to check for hazards – usually animals nearby ready to bolt across. Aircraft are usually 6 seaters, I had one 4-seater, sometimes 12 seaters.
One final adventure on the way out. When the bush plane was due to arrive the wind gauge was showing 15 knots, with gusts to maybe 25 – perpendicular to the runway. The intrepid pilot (a young South African woman – about ¾ of the bush pilots seem to be from SA) circled around, started the landing, and just as her wheels were about to touch the gravel her right wing dipped and almost touched the ground as a gust hit the plane. She jerked back on the throttle, climbed rapidly, radioed the guide that she’d be back in three minutes, circled around again, and this time made a perfect landing. I reassured myself that she’s done this lots of time, etc. etc., and, admittedly with a bit of trepidation, climbed into the plane as per her instructions. With me as the only passenger, she taxied onto the runway for a perfect takeoff. Fortunately the next strip, where I was to change planes for my flight back to Windhoek, is in a much less windy area, no incidents.