An African Diary, Part II: Baboons And Desert Dunes

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Day 4: Sunday Nov 22, 2015

I awoke at 1:15am -as usual- to the urgent call of my bladder. Damnit. The night before it was lions I had to fear and tonight it was baboons. I ran as fast and alert as I could to relieve myself, hunkered down by a tree, holding my knife brandished in one hand, my head whipping around wildly, imagining a baboon to drop down on my head from above at any second. I scrambled back up the ladder and into the safety of my roof top tent, thankful I had eluded the baboons. But hours later, in the dead of sleep, they got me. I dreamt I woke up to the tent collapsing on top of us because a herd of baboons had jumped on it and were beating on it with their balled fists, howling as the tent began to collapse and suffocate us. I was completely paralyzed  (I’ve suffered from sleep paralysis since I was a young child) and felt the impending reach of death gripping me. And then I woke up and saw sunlight on the ground and felt relief wash over me. I had evaded death by baboons this time… 

We decided to take our time this morning as we were in no rush. I cooked up some oatmeal with peanut butter, chocolate, apples and honey and we had a parfait with some granola for breakfast along with our sage tea.  We each had showers, I washed a few clothing items and we were on the road around 11am. The plan was to hit the 23km dirt road (more like large rock road!) that was marked only for 4×4 vehicles. The road hugged the canyon and offered great views into its depths along the way.  Since we couldn’t hike it – we’d drive it! The road was slow going and quite the bouncy affair.  We didn’t encounter a single other vehicle and I worried ceaselessly about flat tires or other mechanical issues out here. There wasn’t a breath of wind and the day was already unbearably hot. Everywhere you looked you could see the shimmering heat waves emanating from the earth as they baked her even drier. I now understood how people in the desert saw mirages, as the road ahead melted away and appeared to be instead a small body of water that, despite our ever onwards advance, never got any closer. The heat plays tricks in these parts! We put the truck in 4 high and stopped several times along the way to walk to the canyon edge and take in the vista. We built a beautiful Inuksuk to mark our place and remind us of home while leaving a piece of home, of the North, here at the canyon.  A few minutes further and we had reached the end of the canyon as it opened up and met the mountains. We pulled down the tailgate and threw together some sandwiches for lunch. I tried to find a place in the shade around the truck to find solace from the fierce afternoon sun, but there was none to be had; the sun was blasting down directly above us, leaving no shadows in his wake.

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The heat was incredible. We were dripping sweat when we got back in the Toyota and cranked the AC.  23km had taken us over two hours with our stops on that road, but it was only and hour back as we only made one stop to look at two dik diks that scampered across the road in front of us, the only wildlife we saw in the otherwise desolate place. They looked like pygmy deer, so cute and miniature! After our adventure drive down the canyon, we decided to push on to Ai-ais which means hot water, about an hours drive south on another dirt road, albeit in far better condition. Because we had bought a park permit at Fish River Canyon, we didn’t have to pay to get into the small grounds here. We walked to the area where the 65 degree celsius water bubbled above ground to tentatively dip our fingers in and test it. There was obviously no swimming – this temperature would scald you badly. But they had a nice big pool where they added cold water to the piped in hot water and thus created a massive bathtub! I was secretly hoping the water would be ice cold to relieve some of the incredible heat, but alas, beggars can’t be choosers!

Nevertheless, it was still a wonderful treat to throw on our swimwear and take a dip in the tepid waters.  Once you got out and sat dripping wet, the breeze cooled you down significantly.  It was also nice to just enjoy some sun pool side in a bikini and relax. So much of my journey these last 5 months had been in cooler weather. I had sudden craving for ice cream so we went up to the shop to indulge ourselves and quench our cravings for some ice cold goodness. Because this camp was also part of the Namibian Wildlife Reserve, we wondered if we couldn’t just change our reservation and stay here instead of another night back at the canyon. We put our inquiry to reception and to our delight were told it wouldn’t be a problem! Perfect! We liked this place already and it would save us a few hours of unnecessary backtracking as we were coming back past this way tomorrow anyhow. We picked a great site away from the only other three campers in the whole park, pulled out our chairs and our journals and got writing. The plan was to stop somewhere once a day for a half hour to write. I had fallen asleep last night only part way through my days recounting so I had some catching up to do. As I sat writing, I looked up to admire the moon that was just beginning to appear behind mountainous rocky landscape  surrounding us, and there, on the bouldery hill in front of us, perched at the very top of a large rock sat a baboon.

“Rug! Baboon!”, I whispered fiercely, as I excitedly pointed towards it. We both dashed for our cameras. The babboon sat up there, legs crossed, hands draped over his knees in what looked like the perfect seated lotus position.  It was so bizarre and surreal. I immediately thought of the Lion King and Rafiki, and imagined this was him, sitting up there, meditating. He looked around as if surveying the land below, his kingdom. He sat there a long while before finally making his way nimbly down the rocky hillside, tail arced high in the air for balance, curled at the tip, as he made his way to a small pool of water below. Wow! What a way to end the night! Although… I’m slightly nervous for my nightly trek to the bathroom room considering my recent dreams!

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Day 5: Monday November 23, 2015

Things I learned today:

  1. Do NOT take your anti malarial medication on an empty stomach.
  2. Do NOT leave your oatmeal unattended on the table even for a minute in camp or the Namibian whiskey jacks will eat it for you
  3. Wild African horses roam the desert
  4. It’s always better to take the back road
  5. They have street graters to remove sand from their highways instead of snow!
  6. It’s so unfathomably hot here the asphalt melts. Literally.

Well, it wasn’t the best start to my day this morning. After my nightly trip to the bathroom, where I now expertly flicked open Rugs switchblade for my walk to the toilet to ward off any baboons (and hoped no one encountered me on the way or I surely would have given them a heart attack!), I fell back asleep and awoke at 8am feeling refreshed from an awesome sleep. I went to start breakfast, and popped my anti malarial pill so wouldn’t forget to take it later. I started prepping breakfast for us, but 15 minutes later I wasn’t feeling so hot. In fact, I felt down right awful as waves of nausea began to rack through my body. I was blisteringly hot and felt woozy. Try as I might I couldn’t continue cooking breakfast. My mind was on one thing and one thing only – that impending feeling you get when you know you’re about to vomit. I bolted for the bathroom and moments later fell around the ceramic bowl, heaving and heaving. There was hardly anything in my stomach, but it all came up and my stomach remained in agonizing cramps while I dry heaved over and over again, my teeth chattering violently for a few minutes afterwards even though I was boiling hot. I splashed myself with cold water, tried to compose myself and went back out to the camp, but minutes later was dashing for the bathroom again. I decided a cold shower would be best and abandoned Rug entirely to finish breakfast. I was exhausted but as we got into the vehicle the nausea had at least passed and the air conditioning helped heaps.

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The African Whiskey Jack (Grackle) – aka the oatmeal thieves!

On the bright side, Rug and I came up with a few tips for surviving in Africa on our drive.

  1. Honey.
  2. Water is important too, but mostly, honey.
  3. Biltong and droewors. Stock up on the good stuff when you find it. Seriously, at least 10 packs.
  4. A reliable 4×4 like our trusty White Wildebeest
  5. Downtown -Macklemore

We decided to take a different route than our itinerary suggested today.  We were hitting the back roads and heading down to the border of South Africa. The Toyota sped along a small dirt road that hugged the Orange River which in turn hugged the meandering border between Namibia and the Republic of South Africa.  Once again, we had the road entirely to ourselves as it twisted and wound through the rocky terrain, mountains of Namibia on one side, the Orange River and her banks of South Africa on the other. It was absolutely beautiful. We passed through a security check point and carried on after a quick search where we had to leave the sanctuary of the air conditioning and bear the scorching +40C dry heat . I could feel my pale tender skin burning instantly. How these men were in full military suits and not passing out, I’ll never understand. They didn’t even seem phased by the heat!

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Eventually we broke away from the river and struck out into more open desert country again all alone on the back dirt roads.  We slowed to a stop as four beautiful zebra grazed on dry succulents near the road and watched us wearily. The heat waves simmered behind them rising like smoke from the ground. Their ears and tails twitched the pesky flies away, their eyes following us as we slowly drove off. Passing by a dried up river, we saw a mother ostrich with four young – perhaps not even half her size, wandering through the dried river bed. We spotted several springbok pairs and the occasional lone oryx prowling the plains in search of water. Around 130 in the afternoon we made it into the small town of Aus. I thought it would be bigger so we could stock up on groceries, but I was mistaken.  It was but a small sleepy town, the few inhabitants mostly hiding from the scorching heat in the shade of their homes. We walked into the only ‘grocery’ store and surveyed the mostly barren shelves, the only produce they had being onions… We grabbed a bag of Simba chips as a little girl in a purple dress shyly grabbed a small bag of home made ketchup flavoured corn puffs and some condensed milk for her mother.

“I feel like this little girl knows something we don’t”, I said to rug and ran back to grab a bag or two of the ketchup puffs for myself. They were .20 cents. And that girl was most definitely on to something – they were delicious! We waved back at the little girl and her friend who eagerly waved at us as we pulled out and moved onwards to our camp which was 3km out of town. Klein Aus Vista was the name of our camp, located at the Desert Horse Inn. It was a beautiful ranch style resort, but our campground was yet a further 2km away from the main buildings, secluded in the desert, just encroaching onto the surrounding mountains. 

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The name Desert Horse wasn’t a misnomer. 20 km or so down the main road there was a lookout with a man made watering hole that attracted wild desert horses. The idea of wild horses seemed so strange to me with how domesticated these beasts are in most of the world, so I was really excited to see not just any wild horse, but wild horses that lived in the desert – the wildest of all wildly inhospitable environments. We drove out, and again were the only ones around. We hit the rough dirt road slowly and within two minutes were seeing several wild horses mingling among impala, springbok and oryx in the sparse shade of the scattered trees.  Finally I was able to see the oryx much closer. How beautiful he is! So noble and powerful looking with his massive pointing horns and his dashing white boots! We pulled up to the look out (a long cement box with shade over top, thank goodness) and hopped out. The heat hit us like a wall. We raced for the shade offered by the viewing booth, but the wind still blew fiery air all over us. It hurt to pull such hot dry air into your lungs, but the view below was well worth it. Three wild horses were standing around the water hole, necks bent low as they took their fill. Below us a short ways away, one horse was slowly walking away, having quenched its thirst. Two ostrich lingered near by, unmoving, other than their feathers blowing in the wind. In the distance, another horse was slowly but steadily walking towards the water hole. Behind him trailed two oryx. The animals were all wary of each other, but everyones movements were so painfully slow you could tell no one felt threatened – the only true threat to them all was the boiling sun and desperate need for water. After their drink, they would slowly move off at a snails pace, conserving their energy in this rabid heat. As my eyes took in the entire scene, I could see the occasional horse, oryx and ostrich slowly walking one behind the other in short lines dead set on the water hole. I stood there, watching their approach and could nearly feel the immense amount of energy it was taking these beasts to make their way to get water. Every step looked a struggle. Their relief was almost palpable when they finally reached the water hole and could satiate the incredible thirst that the desert brings with her torrid days.

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We lingered as long as the arid heat would let us, admiring the scene below.

‘Rug, you realize this is what Etosha park is going to be like? Only with lions and zebras and elephants and wildebeest?!’.

Oh how naive I was to think this quiet little water hole with these docile and acquiescent beasts would be anything like what we would see in Etosha!

We stayed for nearly an hour watching the beasts slowly approach, drink and then just as slowly carry onwards, silently. Life in the desert is not kind, it is not easy. Being hardly able to stand the heat ourselves (and we were under shade!) we reluctantly left the scene before us and decided to make use of the remaining daylight and drive the hour to Kolmanskop, the ghost mining town that had been swallowed by blowing sand from the surrounding dunes after it had been abandoned. Unfortunately the site was closed and could only be accessed by guided tour in the mornings, so we merely viewed it from afar. We pushed on to Ludowitz, the coastal town only 10km further. There were signs everywhere warning about sand and we saw the graters they had for removing the mini sand dunes that formed on the pavement. It reminded me of home – only with sand instead of snow. Ludowitz was a cute little German influenced town and YAY! – they had a Spar – our go to grocery store! We loaded up on food and then found a shop called Beaver and Canoe – you guessed it- Canadian owned! Toronto to be exact. I grabbed a much needed pair of flip flops – my last ones had nearly worn entirely through and I stepped on the melting asphalt with them earlier in the day.  They were now covered in tar! 

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We made our way back to camp with the sun slowly sinking behind us turning the sky baby blue, pink and gold, silhouetting the rusty coloured mountains half obscured in the misty fog from the ocean. Rug set up our tent while I set to making dinner. We have been wanting to make fish but struggling to find it anywhere, so we had to settle tonight for Mexican rice with carrots  and red pepper and loads of hot sauce. I wanted to clear my sinuses before bed from the little cold I had obtained somewhere along the way. The wind was messing with our flames on the stove stop, despite our efforts of moving the table several times to escape it, and so dinner took an eternity to cook. We were so hungry that in the end we decided to forgo plates and just grabbed our spoons, pulled our chairs right in front of each other and dug right into the pot. Classic camping style! It turned out to be surprisingly delicious and we had some gummy worms for dessert.  We covered a lot of ground today, and saw some spectacular scenery and beautiful wildlife. So looking forward to what tomorrow brings! Heres hoping for a good nights sleep to kick this cold!

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Day 6: Tuesday November 24, 2015

We were hoping to get up early and go for a hike today in the surrounding mountains, but as the sun touched our roof top tent at 7am, I knew that wasn’t going to happen. I scrambled to zip up the window shade to block out the sun that was fiercely beating against my body already. It didn’t do much to quell the sauna effect going on in the tent and minutes later I gave up and clambered down the ladder and gasped in gulps of still scorching hot, but fresher air. There was no way we could hike if it was this hot and the sun just rose over the mountains! We had felt the burn of the midday heat yesterday in this area and it was simply unbearable. Instead we took our time making eggs and beans and tea for breakfast and packing up camp, washing the dishes, having a nice cool shower and then headed back up to reception to touch base on the internet.

I had booked my flights out of Namibia to Bangkok a little hastily the night before. It was impossible to get a reliable internet connection and I feared the longer I left booking my ticket – this close to Christmas – the more expensive it would get. When I logged into Facebook this morning, I had a message from my friend Aaron whose parents live in Namibia now. He was going to Namibia for Christmas with his sister Sarah – both friends from home that I hadn’t seen in years. We lamented over the fact that we were missing each other by a mere three days and he suggested that I should try to stay a bit longer and was of course more than welcome to stay with the family. Shit! Why had I just booked that flight?! We got chatting about how this would likely never happen again – that we would both be in Namibia at the same time – I mean, come on, it’s Africa of all places!!! It would be silly not to make it work and meet up. I would get to see Sarah too, his sister, who I had become good friends with for a few years in Yellowknife before I went back to university and she moved away. I never saw her anymore because she lived in Calgary so it would be lovely to reunite. And their mom Leah was my elementary school principal! Their family had even taken me in one Christmas in my angsty teen years shortly after my parents had separated and I wanted nothing to do with either of them. My best friend Gillian Rivers’ family is very close friends with the Von Hagen’s and they always did christmas together, so I got to be the River’s tag along child to Christmas dinner at Von Hagen’s!

It didn’t seem right to be missing them by a mere three days and really I had nothing in Thailand calling my name, no reason to really rush out of Namibia, this country that I was falling head over heels for. You only live once right? So I Skyped the airline right away and bit the bullet and ate the costly change fee and rebooked! Holy smokes! I was now staying an extra ten days in Namibia!!! I would say goodbye to Rug on the 12th of December and then catch a bus over to Swakopmund where they live to meet Aaron who arrived on the 15th and spend the next week with the whole Von Hagen clan!  I was over the moon excited!

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Last minute changes in plans like this used to stress me out, but since I’ve started travelling, I’ve found its something I find myself hoping for and revelling in when it occurs! It leaves my pulse racing and my heart light and full of excitement! I also know how blessed and lucky I was to have a family as sweet as the Von Hagen’s offer to take me into their home so generously and without hesitation. It would do my soul good so close to Christmas and so far from home and family, to be around some familiar faces and in a home environment after being on the road for so long. I couldn’t calm down how excited I was with this wonderful and sudden change of plans! It was worth every penny ! I was so happy to have another 10 days in this lovely country that I was so in love with already.

With the flights changed and everything settled, I packed up my laptop and we hit the road – we had a long haul ahead of us today- over 400km on dirt roads, some in decent shape some so bad we had to practically crawl in 4 low over them. We were headed north towards Sossusvlei – the desert area known for their massive red sand dunes – some of the most photographed in the world! Close to our destination, we stepped out of the White Wildebeest – yes the name we finally gave to our Toyota – to take a couple of photos and nearly gagged when we sucked in the fiery, hot desert air.

‘My god.. what is this place? Hell?!’, I asked incredulously.

We took one photo and were back in the vehicle to the sanctuary of the AC. I thought Ai-Ais was hot, but this was just insanity. We cruised through flat plains, barren desert, boulder fields, and tremendous red mountains until we finally came to our stop, Sesriem – a cluster of camps with gates for entrance to Sossuvlei – the red sand dunes. We filled the thirst of the Wildebeest with diesel, grabbed an ice cream and looked into taking a helicopter ride over a small area of the desert.  The cheapest one we could find was $250 CAD each for a half hour – or we could pay $500 each for a three hour hot air balloon ride. Gasp! $500!? It was less than half that price in Turkey! Plus, I had never been on a helicopter. Another one to check off the bucket list! We took the plunge and booked it.

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Since we still had a few hours until the gates to the dunes closed, we decided to drive in and check it out and make our plan of attack for tomorrow. The drive was torturously slow as we were being model citizens and obeying the 60km/hr speed limit. It was 45 minutes until we reached Dune 45. Another 10 minutes before we reached the end of the paved road where the 4×4 path began through deep sand. It was insane. We were in 4 low, crawling along at 10km/hr, the tires sinking deep in the sand, but dutifully pulling us along. The Wildebeest was growling gutturally as she bobbed along through the sea of sand, Rug swinging the wheel harshly from side to side as the sand sucked us this way and that. We saw someone ahead of us was seriously stuck, so after clearing the deepest danger zone we pulled over and walked back with shovel in hand along with another fellow and helped dig and push him out. Several oryx stood nearby surely thinking, ‘silly humans’. Onwards we plowed through the deep red sand as it tried to suck the White Wildebeest down. Rug had his new Indiana jones hat on and looked like a serious outbacker the way he was navigating us through the deep and treacherous sand. We blasted Macklemore’s Downtown the entire time and along with Rug’s expert driving skills, we made it through!

Coming to the end of the path 15 minutes later, we saw where we would tomorrow have to set out on foot to reach Deadvlei and Big Daddy, the biggest dune around. We headed back feeling a bit more confident plowing through the sand. The gates closed at 815pm as darkness fell, so we had to leave now to make it back in time. On our drive – just as we had the entire day- we saw heaps of springbok, ostrich and oryx.  But this time in the fast fading daylight, we saw an oryx with something small following behind her – it looked like a little jackal at first, but turned out to be a baby oryx! Full-grown oryx  have a beautiful grey and white coat with black markings, while the babies are a soft tawny colour. It was so precious, the little one tagging along behind mommy. They gingerly trotted across the road tight in front of us! It was such a special moment watching them disappear in to the encroaching night. These moments always remind me how resilient, enduring and hardy the beasts of the desert are. They are surrounded by endless sand dunes – a harsh, arid parched landscape. Seeing this mother lead her young to find food, water and shelter for the night reminded me of the tenacity the creatures of the desert must possess to survive here.

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Back at camp we whipped up some fast burritos with leftover Mexican rice – Yum! I made our usual sage tea and here we sit – writing about the days adventures. Tomorrow we are waking up at 430am in order to be at the gates as they open at 515am and everyone already within the park (those suckers outside the gates have to wait until 630am!) heads out to see the dunes for sunrise, so its off to bed now!

xoxox

Britt

P.S.- stay tuned for part III, coming soon!

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A Kudu skull on the side of the highway near the South African border

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