It was after a long day's travel that we arrived at the Windhoek airport in our small 42-seater jet. The airport is, inexplicably, forty miles from downtown Windhoek, stuck in the middle of the desert. So, we had no view of Windhoek from above, indeed, no view of anything on the ground. We descended and descended through the darkness and suddenly the runway was there and we were on it. At passport control, we found a stack of photocopies of a letter from the Italian ambassador to Namibia to arriving Italian citizens. The entire subject was driving. We'd been told and had read that Namibia has the most dangerous roads in the world, but were absolutely in the dark as to why. Coming from South Africa, in which the danger is coming from other (desperate) people, we were a bit trepidatious about the danger that awaited us here. I did my best to translate a foreign letter after the 40 minute ride to our hotel. Our driver had met us with "welcome to our peaceful country" so we started to let our guard down a little. The letter pretty much said that since the roads, even the gravel ones, are in such good condition, the temptation is to speed. The danger apparently comes from this, and for people driving at night from the animals, domestic and wild, which cross and loiter on the roads.
Nevertheless, all this threw a scare into me and as we went to bed, we resolved that rather than the Toyota Corrolla we'd reserved, we'd try to rent something safer, like the Mercedes we got in Kruger. At the rental agency the next morning, I broached the subject with the sun-weathered but pretty rental agent. Came the reply, which was to be repeated many times between Meghan and I: "Sir, this iss Namibia. We do not have luxury vehicles for rental." Put back in our middle-class shoes, we were shown to our white Toyota Corrolla, which was black inside and was absolutely spotless and in very good condition. We soon figured out that almost every car in this desert country is white or beige because of the strong sun.
We pulled out and headed south, hitting smooth dirt roads about an hour out of Windhoek. Here's a list of the highlights for the next 10 days:
From our two nights in Sossusvlei, in the south:
Climbing "Big Daddy", the red dune that rises above Dead Vlei (Dead Lake) in the Namib Desert dunes. And especially, running down the same, to walk barefoot across the absolutely white dead lake bed, the clay dried into tortoise-shell patterns, a stand of long-dead trees sticking out of the lake at one end.
Taking a ride in the desert with Sam, the Yorkshire-born guide from the Desert Homestead where we stayed. In the States, you only get to walk, sometimes get a bumpy trot, and a stern warning from the guide. Here, we got to canter for five minutes at a time, which was awesome... and actually feels like you're riding a horse, rather than being carried by it.
Stargazing on a perfectly still, perfectly cool desert night, with a new moon on the other side of the planet and the Milky Way so distinct it was like a band of clouds.
From two nights in Swakopmund:
The sunset over the crashing waves was awesome, but we were really too tired to take advantage of much in or around the town. Mostly, we tried and failed repeatedly to get on the Internet.
A night in Erongo Wilderness Lodge:
The whole thing. Sleeping in a tent under a thatched roof. Watching the sun set and rise from the top of one of the granite monoliths that surround the camp.
Also, the late-bird special, which is to be described in another posting.
Doro Nawas, in Damaraland:
An otherworldly sunset, watched from the very comfortable bed in our canvas-walled, thatch-roofed bungalo. One whole wall was glass doors, which opened up onto a polished concrete verandah, and then onto the desert as far as you can see. The squawking calls of the red-billed francolins, and the hollow clacking of some other bird.
Trailing a group of eight desert-adapted elephants down the dry Huab river bed.
A white, dry and different place. We saw lion and elephant, which are the things to see, but were more impressed with the small things we saw there (yellow mongoose), and with the combinations of animals all coming to the watering holes to drink, than with any particular wildlife sighting.
Except maybe the just-calved, still-wet oryx being cleaned by its long-antlered mother, surrounded by four jackals eyeing the baby hungrily. We learned later that these very bad dogs were not in fact after the baby (though I'm sure they wouldn't have turned it down), but were waiting around for the pair to clear out so they could have the placenta, apparently a major source of protein for them.
Mount Etjo Safari Lodge:
A nightly lion feeding, where we watched two maned males, four females and five cubs all going at some meaty bones and pre-killed warthog that had been chained there. This all happened from the safety of a bunker shaped like a small quonset hut with a four-inch high slot running the length of it. The slot had a grating over it so we were completely safe, but the lion knew we were there, and even a glance from an amber-eyed baby was enough to turn your guts to jelly. The feeding was gruesome and awesome, with the huge male keeping everyone in line and every so often bellowing out a series of roars to announce the kill as his. The best part, though, was at the end, where this male caught sight through the grid of the two chatty Italian girls down the bench from us. He got up and very deliberately pointed his hindquarters at them and sprayed. It wasn't stinky or wet or anything, just a territory marking and a warning, but it was friggin' hilarious.
A rolicking, but ultimately unsuccessful, private game drive through the bush, looking for black (or even white) rhino.
On returning the car to the rental agency in Windhoek, miraculously undamaged after two thousand miles on roads of varying quality, I apologized for the state of it. I'd filled it up and had the windows cleaned, but didn't know if the dust that had collected in every crevice was my responsibility. The reply came, bookending the trip perfectly: "Sir, this is Namibia. We are accustomed to dust."
We now head off this morning for four nights and five days on the Otter Trail. High winds are predicted for the middle day (up to 50 mph), so we have no idea how successful our jaunt is going to be. We're bringing extra whisky to make sure everything turns out okay.