An African Diary, Part 1: Camping & Canyons

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Day 1: Thursday November 19th, 2015

Well, it was a blasted long 30 hour journey with another sleepless night in another airport, but I at last have touched down in the Motherland. Africa. Windhoek, Namibia to be exact. Since I was a little girl I can recall feeling the desire to one day visit Africa. I have no idea where it started or what fuelled it, but it’s only grown stronger and stronger as I grew older and older. When I decided to travel around the world, I knew  without a doubt that I would find myself in Africa. Ten months into my journey and I am finally here. I don’t know what it is about Africa that has always called to me. But, being a desperate lover of nature, the vast expanse of her epic wilderness no doubt beckoned me more than anything.  And the unknown, the mysterious, this land so drastically different in every way from my own. I suppose I’ve always been pulled to that which I do not know, the enigmatic and exciting. To say this is a big one on my bucket list just doesn’t do it justice. It feels like a satiating of my very soul – not just food for my soul, but life for my soul. And now at last, I am finally on those strange and extraordinary soils of Africa.

As we stepped off the plane we were greeted by the warm Namibian air. The airport was tiny and only had two other planes on the whole tarmac. I was instantly reminded of home. I had gotten so used to flying into these major city centres with massive international airports, that I forgot what a small one felt like! And what it felt like was home. They even only had two baggage belts like home! Ours was the only flight in that night so we breezed through the customs after filling out a brief form ensuring we had not been to Guinea recently (ebola precautions). Namibia is small – a population of only 2.3 million but over a land area of over 800,000 square km. That means the population density is only about 2 people per square km! Felt like home indeed! (Okay, so home is only .04 people per square km, but you know what I mean!)

A driver picked us up at the airport – all pre arranged by our contact Anita at Cardboard Box tour company. The whole drive in, even though it was pitch black, I sat in the back seat straining my seat belt to see from one side to the other, with a huge grin on my face. There was nothing but outlines of distant hills silhouetted against the navy sky and the bright speckled mass of stars with the half moon blazing high above. But I just couldn’t stop smiling! We chatted with our amiable driver and learned a little about Namibia on our 40km drive into Windhoek from the airport. What’s the population? Who is the president? Do people like him? How long is his term? What’s the main industry? What’s your favourite place to eat? The questions came flying out of me; I was so curious to soak up all I could of this country. With my last question, he answered, without hesitation “Joe’s Beerhouse: I can show you if you don’t mind a little detour?”.

Oh yes please!

Rug had told me he wanted to check this place out on our last night in the country before leaving, so it was great to hear first hand from a local how yummy it was. After our quick detour to check out where Joe’s was, we got dropped off at our little guesthouse, Vondelhof, and were greeted with a fresh glass of pink guava juice. We got our room and were welcomed to it by a monstrous spider the size of a plum – to which our host laughed and said, “Oh look, you’ve already got a nice spider! Don’t worry, they are harmless”, and then left us completely defenceless to deal with the giant on our own. On closer, trepidatious inspection, I saw the spider had actually already been squished – thank goodness!  Minutes later another large and very much alive spider crawled down the wall startling me. I called Rug to come and be a hero and take care of it. That’s a good fellow!  We chatted excitedly about the up coming three and a half weeks and connected with our families to let them know we had made it to Africa. We had nice hot showers (after several days without hot water or showers in general!) and then crashed hard – a much needed sleep.

xoxo Brittany

Day 2: Friday November 20, 2015

This morning was a blur. We ate breakfast while I quickly tried to learn some tips for wild life photography online. As I was reading about low light settings, I received an email from my dad receiving the tragic news that my great grandmother had passed away. She was a week shy of her 101st birthday. I had gone to visit her before I left on my journey and while she was at long last beginning to lose a bit of her memory as to who I was (who can blame her at that age and with over 5 grandchildren, and 14 great grandchildren and 7 great-great grandchildren!), it was, as always such a nice visit. But I had a feeling during that visit that it may very well be the last time I saw her, with her advanced age and recent decline in health. I savoured my time with her while understanding bittersweetly that it may be my last. She was so loved in our family, so respected, so admired, so inspirational and so loved. She had lived through two world wars, the great depression, took a vow with her best friend to never eat potatoes because that was all they had to eat during the war – and kept it her whole life, was completely deaf, and through it all formed a large and beautiful family. She had outlived three husbands and even in her final years a boyfriend, a sweet British bloke who was also deaf and would come down the hall to her place to watch captioned TV with her and sit in silent, comfortable company. She had also tragically outlived her own son. She had lived quite the life indeed, and left quite the legacy.

Even at nearly 101 it was hard to let someone go, someone who has been such a force, such a lifeline to an entire family. My heart was broken – but even more so for my father than myself. The son that my great Grandmother Evelyn had outlived was my dad’s father. I know how close my dad has always been with Grandma so I knew the loss was especially hard for him. The rest of our family lived down in Regina, where Grandma lived. Living so far away up north, 2500km away – has always been hard for my dad and meant he got to visit her far less than he would have liked to. I was torn apart that now, here I was, 15,000km away from him in his time of need, of deep grief. All I wanted in the world at that moment was to hug my dad, to sit with him and let him talk and tell me all the wonderful stories of her he could remember. To help relive her life, to bring her alive for him for just a little while longer. To share my own stories and to laugh and cry together. But all I could give him were a few rushed words from my heart in an email minutes before our ride arrived to take us to get the rental vehicle.

“Dear Daddy

I understand your pain in not being able to say goodbye. But just remember: you’d only be saying goodbye to her body, not her soul – you can reach out to her, grab a picture or a momento from her and just reach out. Say your goodbyes. I will be down in Regina in late April and early May (for the birth of Devin and Diane’s new baby – maybe you should come too!) and there is the balance in life, no? As we lose Grandma, in a few months we gain a previous new life from her line- there will be a little of Great Grandma inside this new little one!

I love that she requested no funeral, that’s so her, isn’t it?  No fuss about it. Don’t cry and moan, but only remember and celebrate her life- and what a life, what a legacy it was! She was a special lady to us all, such an inspiration. She really left her mark on all of us didn’t she? We can now remember her every day through each of us, because it is there, inside us, in not only our blood, but our very souls were she resides now. I love you so much Dad, and I wish I could be there with you to share in this hard time. I’m thinking of you and of her and will be keeping you in my thoughts this whole journey. Until I can come home and hug you for real, sending all my love and hugs through here. I miss you terribly.

Love Brittany”

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Great Grandma playing with her great great grandson, Arson

It was inadequate and left me feeling sad and frustrated. Dealing with the loss of a loved one when you’re on the road is difficult, heart breaking and emotionally challenging. My uncle Brian had passed a few months earlier while I was also on the road, and while he and I were not that close, it was so hard to be away from my mom during what was undoubtedly a very trying time for her to lose her brother and have to explain to her mother, who is deep in dementia, that her son had passed. These are the times we need our family the most and when they need us the most. I kept my father, my Great Grandmother and my entire family who all loved her so deeply, in the forefront of my mind and heart as we set out on day one.

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Our home in Namibia

African tracks was our truck and gear rental and they were wonderfully efficient and thorough – ensuring they showed us every detail of our 4×4 Toyota home for the next three weeks. The truck came fully outfitted with an attached fold out tent with built in mattress on the roof of the truck bed cap. We had a tool set, two spare tires, two bins of cooking wares for camping (including a cheese shredder!), a 3kg propane tank and stove topper, cooler, 20 litre water jug, two chairs and a propane lantern. It was a white 2008 Toyota Hilux 4 door 4×4 – she was beautiful! However…little did we know prior to arriving in Namibia that they drive on the left hand side of the road! This would take a little getting used to, and as we tentatively rolled out of the lot, the wipers began waving wildly back and forth as Rug attempted to signal. We struggled for a moment, got on the correct side of the road and off the wipers went again! And off we went in hysterics! It was like learning to drive for the first time all over again! But a few more turns and we began to figure it out. We filled up our 140 litre tank, hit the Super Spar (and the wipers again!) to load up on groceries and other necessities and eagerly hit the road. We cruised out of Windhoek heading towards the B1 highway both of us clearly relieved to be out of the city and the strange new way of driving with the congested traffic, wondering if we were suddenly going to turn into oncoming traffic by accident. That, added to the anxiety to just finally be out exploring AFRICA left us a jittery mess until we saw the open stretch of the B1 laying ahead of us.

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“Woo hoo!” I cheered as we high fived. I complimented Rug on his skills in getting us through the madness. We even had to go through two traffic circles on our way out- those are bad enough for us newbies, (we hardly have any back in Canada, and not one in our home town), let alone when they are backwards! We cranked the tunes, sat back and relaxed, taking in the sweet scenes flashing by our windshield. After an hour or so, I grabbed our Namibia book and began reading aloud to Rug to enlighten us both about this fascinating country we were just beginning to penetrate. We learned that the elephant desert bull weighs 5000kg and can go up to four days without water. We learned that the Terebrionoid bettles collect fog for water when in the desert.

“Whoa did you know the oryx can -“

Rug stopped me mid sentence.

“Wait a minute…do you recall that check list of all our gear saying anything about pillows and blankets? Better yet, do you recall seeing them in the back of the truck…?”

Oh shit… no. We we gave them a quick call to ask and were informed that they weren’t included. We now had the fun task of tracking down sleeping gear in the small town of Mariental which was only a few streets. We lucked out and found a shop selling fleece blankets and sheets and pillows among other oddities such as lamps, folding chairs, dvd’s and kitchen supplies. Crisis averted!

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Hottest laundry room that ever was! Photo credit – Rug

As we returned to the truck, four young Namibian boy followed us asking for money telling us how hungry they were. It tore at my heart, but I learned long ago on my travels it’s usually more damaging to give kids money as often times they are working for someone and the money just goes to them. The kids looked well fed and dressed so I tried not to think about it too much even though it was difficult to say no. A short drive later and we were pulling into the Kalahari Nature Reserve. Just 3km down the red dirt road lay our lodge and camping grounds, Anib Kalahari. I strained my neck and eyes, opening them as wide as possible, searching desperately for some sign of life. We had just passed a sign which read, ‘drive slowly – animals crossing’ with silhouetted images of rhinos and antelope on it. A minute later I excitedly smacked the window with my hand.

“There!” I yelled.

We stopped as a springbok hopped a few steps and then turned back to look at us. I fumbled for my camera and learned my first lesson – always have your camera ready! We drove on and a minute later saw four much larger antelope looking beasts, huge and grey – almost horse like. I found out later these were Eland. Our first African animals! We were overjoyed!

Moments later we pulled into our lodge and were greeted by a beautiful smiling Namibian woman who handed us each a glass of pink guava juice with cucumber and pineapple slices floating in it. The grounds were beautiful and the staff so warm and friendly and happy. We signed in and drove another minute or so to our camp site which was secluded from the others and had its own little shower/toilet complex and picnic/fire pit area with a shade structure over it all. It was perfect, better than any hotel! We had some work ahead of us. This was our first time setting up camp with all the gear we were unfamiliar with. However, being seasoned professional campers from our years of experience back in Yellowknife, we weren’t too worried about it! In our rush to get out of Windhoek and get on the open road, we had thrown all of our belongings haphazardly into the back seat of the truck in a giant mess. So we spent the next two hours organizing, repacking and rearranging to get the truck in order. I had some laundry that needed doing and so took my armful to the sink in the back of our complex which, most unfortunately was not under the shade structure. The 4 pm African sun beat down ruthlessly on me and I continuously had to run back to the shade structure for relief breaks. This was my first experience with the intensity of the sun in Africa and it was unbearable for more than a few minutes, especially while exerting myself scrubbing vigorously in a sink.

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But when it was all done, it was time to relax and take it all in! We sat on our chairs with our journals and wrote as we listened to the vast array of birds flittering about all around our camp. The tall yellow parched grasses scattered with quiver and camel thorn trees lay in all directions.  I couldn’t believe I was in the Kalahari! The sun slowly sank below the horizon at 7pm and left us in a tangerine glow. Rug set up the rooftop tent  while I set to making a quick and simple dinner. We played a game of backgammon, christening the board we bargained for at the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, and miraculously, I won! I never win, so it was kind of a big deal for me! I made us some sage infused tea from the dried sage we bought in the Wadi Rum desert in Jordan and we sipped the sweet and fragrant hot liquid as the stars winked high above us. It was a hell of a first day, but alas, it’s time for bed now. We are rising at 5:30am to catch sunrise and challenging ourselves to a 10km hike after breakfast through the Kalahari!

xoxo Brittany

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Moments before my big win! Photo credit – Rug

Day 3: Saturday November 21, 2015

5:30am came all too soon after a strange and fitful sleep. I had trouble falling asleep and after an hour of laying there, at around midnight I had to get up to pee. What a surprise… Now, the thing is, I’ve always had this immense phobia of bears when I’m camping. To the point where I usually sleep terribly because I’m so scared and anxious. I also park my car directly beside my tent door so that when I open the tent I can reach out and grab the handle to my car door and hop in in an emergency… yeah I know, a little excessive – like I said.. immense phobia! Oh, and I sleep with an axe and a knife beside me in the tent…! So, as I climbed down the ladder in my bare feet I scanned my torch widely over the open bush in front of me – waiting for it to catch on the incandescent glow of a lions eye. How truly bizarre that I am camping, and for the first time my fear of bears is replaced by something altogether far more terrifying – lions! I ran like a maniac for the bathroom only 50 feet away. I had to pee twice that night and both times were utterly frightening. I’m pretty sure there aren’t any lions anywhere near where we were but still…. the fear is strong in this one! And so when the alarm went off at 5:30am, needless to say I was a groggy mess. That is until I sat up and looked out from the front window of our tent and saw the skyline aflame with sunrise.

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Two travellers in absolute awe at their first African Sunrise (and possibly my favourite photo from the trip!)- photo credit Rug

It was a surprisingly cold night, considering the blistering heat of the day and so we threw our sweaters on and wrapped up in the blankets, flipped on our tummies and put our heads near the door and watched in awe and silence as the sun rose and Africa awoke with him, matching his majesty. The wind was still blowing fiercely as it had all night, obscuring the sounds of the awakening birds somewhat. A small herd of springbok silently and tentatively ambled right in front of our tent about 30 meters away. We watched them in stunned silence, the dazzling copper sky aflame behind them. It was like watching magic come to life. Later, I congratulated Rug on his exceptional parking skills which allowed us the PERFECT view of sunrise and to catch the springbok getting their breakfast grazing. What a way to start a day! We got up and I fixed us up a quick breakfast of sage and honey tea, canned beans and scrambled eggs with lemon, hot sauce and pepper. We loaded up on protein to prepare for our big day: a 10km hike lay ahead of us. We were setting off to explore a walking trail through the Kalahari panhandle in hopes of seeing some more wildlife. To say we weren’t disappointed would be huge understatement!

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Hiking through the Kalahari -photo credit Rug

We were on the trail by 8:30am in an attempt to beat the blistering heat. The cool winds of the night were still blowing strongly, but the sun was already beating down with all its African might.  This area of the Kalahari was a sub desert. The ground was mostly sandy and spotted with spiky shrubs and sparse gnarled trees that looked shrivelled from their lack of hydration, their knotted branches grasping high in their attempts to slowly claw their way skywards. We followed the small path, eyes wide and ready. Rug spotted the first animals, springbok – the same kind that came through our camp this morning – and then – a wildebeest! A large bull stood ahead of us just to the right about 30 yards ahead. He was staring straight at us, ears twitching as he sized us and our threat up. I noticed a few others off in the distance hiding in the bushes, also staring at us. I was slightly nervous. We were entirely alone out here. There was no one anywhere in sight and we were far enough away from camp now that no one could see or hear us. Were wildebeests aggressive? Would he charge us? As we gradually walked closer and closer, he stamped his feet and snorted, still having us locked in a dead stare. I was pretty sure that was aggression, but in the form of just trying to tell us he was tough and not to mess with him – merely a warning. We oh so slowly advanced on the trail and he jumped around, stamped and ran in a half circle, moving a few meters ahead. We stopped. Evaluated. Moved forward slowly.

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This dance between us – us moving forward cautiously, him prancing in a circle and moving ahead, continued for several minutes; it was so surreal that this was happening! We got a few great pictures and I kept checking on his buddies in the bushes. They looked hilarious – all four standing, facing us, half concealed in the tall bush, heads held high, staring straight at us, eyes wide, as if asking their comrade what the scoop was. ‘Who are they Joe? What are they? Is it safe? Do you think they see us? Of COURSE not, we’re totally camouflaged! Then why is she looking right at me??”. I laughed at the internal dialogue Rug and I were playing out to each other and turned my attention back to the lone ranger. We were now parallel with him and soon enough passed him. He finally took off and galloped away, leaving us awestruck. 10 minutes later Rug spotted some ostrich! The massive, prehistoric looking birds were off in the distance and we needed our cameras to zoom and get a decent look at them. I couldn’t believe how massive they were! I was blown away at how successful our little trek was already and we were only 20 minutes in! We saw loads more springbok and then I excitedly spotted zebra off in the distance! Oh my god. ZEBRA! In the wild! They were a ways off behind a bit of brush so I couldn’t get a great look at them, though I could hear them snorting and saw them all staring our way. I sure hoped we’d see more.

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The lone rangers comrades ‘hiding’ in the bush

Ask and you shall receive! 20 minutes later we came across a herd of 17 zebra! These ones were much closer and calmer – they were laying about or standing around watching us, but without much interest. I was absolutely mesmerized. They were so beautiful! I had a hard time understanding how so much wildlife thrived here considering we hadn’t seen a single drop of water in the wild since we go to Namibia… I lingered 15 minutes just observing and taking pictures of the beautiful beasts. There were several foals in the herd and they were so sweet and small, staying closer to their mothers. As we pressed on, some springbok passed through the zebra herd and an oryx lingered behind them. We shortly encountered another large herd of wildebeest, near 60 strong. There was a bit more greenery over this way, which would explain why it drew in wildlife in larger numbers.  I was in awe that we had seen so much. Rug and I didn’t encounter a single other human being on our 10km hike through the Kalahari panhandle. It was like we had the entire outback to ourselves.  Just us and a wondrous amount of wildlife.  Southern Africa was living up to the crazy ideal I had in my mind already. I think I was honestly a little bit in shock that we were able to just take a hike on our own – no guide, no vehicle – into the wilderness and be so lucky as to see so much wildlife.

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I had a quick shower to wash off the sweat and dust from the hike and we hit the road by 1130am.  Within the first half hour we pulled over to watch five ostrich in a vast open plain close to the road. These were much closer than the ones in the park so I was excited to get a better look and snap some photos. We filled up on supplies in Mariental and hit the road heading to our next destination – Fish River Canyon, which was about four hours away. When we turned off the main highway and were getting closer to our destination, we saw signs warning us to drive carefully as there was recently relocated wildlife around. It wasn’t long before we began to see springbok and impalas. I was fiddling with the settings on my camera when Rug calmly said “whoa… whoa… WHOA!”

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Fish River Canyon Campsite

“What!?!?!”, I asked distractedly looking up from my camera, and as I looked towards him I saw a huge oryx racing beside us! It’s wide gait sent him bounding agilely alongside the Toyota and we squealed with delight. It only lasted a few moments, but it was unforgettable to see such a magestic beast running alongside us, head thrown back, those unusually long, fine tipped horns reaching nearly to it’s rump. We soon pulled into our campsite to check it out and get some information, and then drove the 10km out to get our first glimpse at the canyon, which is often compared to the Grand Canyon due to it’s incredible size. We were looking forward to doing a little bit of hiking and exploring of the canyon but were disappointed to find out that there was no day hiking allowed 😦 Only serious trekkers tackling the full 85km five day hike were permitted to enter the canyon. This was disappointing considering we only had two days here and there wasn’t much else to do! We headed back to camp and stopped along the way to admire two huge ostriches roadside. One, the black one, male- was on our right hand side and the grey one, the female, was on the other.

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As we began to drive again, the male began to run shockingly fast (they can hit over 65 km/ph!!!)- his long legs pumping as he ran into the road ahead of us to cross over to be with his mate. We watched their fluffy white tails bounce as they walked away together, awe struck at yet another animal running so close to the vehicle.  Back at camp I threw us together and easy dinner of canned lentil soup and grilled gouda cheese sandwiches so we could head back out and watch the sunset over the canyon.  We packed all our gear up hastily to beat the setting sun. We were warned not to leave anything out as the baboons were known to leave their haunts in the trees and raid the unattended camps. Sunset over the canyon was beautiful. Fish River canyon is widely considered the 2nd largest canyon in the world, next to the Grand in Arizona. The now nearly dry Fish River had once carved out this massive scar down the backbone of Namibia – visible from space. Only small pools here and there remained from the last rains from the previous year.  The layered landscape spread wide before us as we sat down on the rocks to watch the day end. Once again, we were the only ones there, just two Northerner’s sitting on the edge of one of the greatest canyon’s in the world watching the sun disappear. It dipped behind the mountains in the distance and left the sky a vibrant mess of orange, lilac, and  crimson. The heat of the day dissipated quickly with the departure of the sun and so we didn’t linger. Back at camp, at only 8pm I am struggling to write my journal. The long and exciting day has worn me out completely and I can write no more!

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xoxo Brittany

*stay tuned for part 2, coming soon!*

One thought on “An African Diary, Part 1: Camping & Canyons

  1. Hi Brittany I’m so sorry about the loss of your grandma but so glad you spent time with her before you left. Just wanted to let you know I love your Africa posts. I need to look up where you are in africa. I was there (Tanzania) last year and there has been nowhere on earth that I have seen like Africa. Do be safe… Desperate circumstances for people can make things dangerous. It’s so funny… You and I are worlds apart in age and where were from our experience… So much that you say reverberates with me .good luck Susan Boswell

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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