June 2012: Please note that due to the very low bandwidth of African internet - it proved difficult to update our blog. We posted 'live' updates via Twitter and pledged to update the blog on our return. Sorry - it's just the way it was! Luckily there was always good old fashioned pen and paper to record events. Please keep checking back as I strive to catch-up!…..

Hwange National Park – Sinamatella Camp

Monday, 11 July 2011 Victoria Falls rest camp 0920 hours

The Hadedas have made a welcome return, but fewer in number than in South Africa.

Click to hear:  Hadedas – these comical Ibis’ – also known as ‘Africa’s Alarm-clock’ should be introduced to the UK

We head for Hwange National Park after our 3 days stop, the longest to date.

Our route through and around Hwange - Sinamatella is to the north, Main Camp to the south. Botswana border to the west.

2125 hours Sinamatella Campsite Hwange National Park

An uneventful drive here, the road from Victoria Falls being through forest, although more hills as you approach the coal town of Hwange.

Under colonial rule the park was renamed...... Thankfully now it's reverted to Hwange

We saw a single elephant just before the gate, and as it retreated into the trees, we saw the sorry sight of a festering, snare wound around its rear, left leg. An inauspicious introduction.

The road to the camp was good to start, but bad corrugations for the last few miles. Nonetheless we arrived in time for a drive to Manduvu Dam, where hippos and crocs abound.

We saw lots of elephant herds through the trees, kudu, impala, baboon too.

However the highlight was viewing the empty wilderness (devoid of people and light pollution) from the hilltop campsite and listening to lion roar territory, elephant squeal (cause and effect?), branches crack and baboon chatter.

One’s mind does weird sums to reckon upon the blanks that the senses cannot reconcile in the darkness of night – what is out there watching us, listening to it?

In this natural space you ponder how puny a man is. How fallible, how vulnerable and how transient. Yes, on the back of one another, we build roads, drive cars, construct cities and beat back the wilds – but here, where it is quiet, slightly rundown and certainly understated, you can see how, but for a few hundred years, a man is just a man.

The staff are all very friendly and seemed genuinely pleased to see business at this, the less visited end of Hwange. We have booked tonight and tomorrow night before driving down to the imaginatively named “Main Camp”. We are mindful to keep an eye on our diesel, as there is none in the Park, nor nearby. We need to keep enough to subsequently make the hop to Bulawayo.

Tuesday 12th June 2011 0930 hours, Sinamatella Camp Hwange NP, Zim

Strangely this place is better for being slightly ‘off-peak’. The restaurant is ‘perma-closed’, despite the spectacular situation and view from the escarpment. The campers, and food for them are simply not here. Many roads are undrivable. Importantly, it is its redemption, that it lacks the business and ‘prepackaged’ hullabaloo we saw in  Kasane, Botswana. Less game seen so far [c/w HIP, Etosha, N.Chobe], but it’s there – brilliantly, the lion roars woke me several times in the night.

The showers at Sinamatella have clearly seen better days - but they were functional and hot thanks to the well stoked donkey boiler

My advice would be to visit before it picks up to where it obviously was. When it does I’m quite sure it will quickly become as exclusive as Botswana. In the meantime it is a throwback to how bush safari used to be, even as it was in South Africa just twenty years ago: simple, understated and peaceful, the latter being the most important. For me the African Wilderness’ (all of them) are more about contemplating our own mortality and place in things than simply haring about ticking things off a list. I think those that “get it” will appreciate that. Those that don’t, fine, but please don’t keep visiting just because you have the money. See it once, get what you can, but only return if you understand. That way peaceful spots like this may yet avoid the ‘Hollywoodization’ and/or ‘African Experience’ bought at the travel agents (In Botswana, expensive packaged tours are already possibly the only way in).

This was one of my favourite sights on the whole trip - elephants are perhaps surprisingly, rather congruent woodland animals

(2140 hours) A disappointing day’s game viewing, we saw no new fauna, and we were restricted to sporadic elephant, hippo, skittish kudu, giraffe and Impala again. The autumnal Mopane forest was worth seeing though. Despite being a Zim winter, the sunlight is still quite bright, odd to see the copper and red leaves set against this. (In the UK autumnal light is far less intense, so it was an alien experience to me.)

Back at camp, not the same close lion calls, a few, more distant and difficult to hear; as revelling, newly arrived campers are more audible! My shoes and wheelchair cushion are still not dry from the soaking they got at Victoria Falls.

A herd of buffalo viewable from Sinamatella did deliver, as some four-hundred, with many calves, emerged from the forest below and grazed their way from left to right, across a dried grass opening. In the quickly descending evening, at least a few kilometres away, they looked like a slow arrowhead as they stocked up for a night’s rumination.

It did rain today, and there were some spectacular rainbows against the big sky. Yesterday and today’s neighbour campers from Johannesburg (Trisha et al) lament seasonal and unusual weather, both here and in South Africa. It seems a recurrent theme on our travels. Many reporting it. Interesting.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011 0700 hours, Sinamatella Camp.

A Honey Badger visited last night about 0245h to go through the bins. As the honey badger woke us up, I peered through the window from the bunk in the Azalai and saw what I thought was a solitary hyena (male? Brown?) slinking on the periphery, by the donkey boiler and ablutions. It was seemingly attracted by the honey badger’s antics and noise. A few more lion calls, but otherwise I slept incredibly well.

The stove has decided not to light again, after an unprecedented couple of relatively trouble free days. We have a long drive to Main Camp today.

1100 hours, Vindicated!  In the morning hyaena spoor could be seen, together with the badger’s.

2030 hours – A long drive to Main Camp, five hours for 110 km, over bad corrugations and a vestigial tar road. Quite exhausting and tough on the Landie for sure. Not much game either, even the elephants were shy, but not surprising given the racket the shaking van must have made! We chose to drive through the park to avoid having to go out onto the main (good, metalled) VF-Bulawayo road and reenter, as this would have incurred another entrance fee. After being shaken about all day my advice would be do yourself a favour and stump-up!

At the limit of our 400mm lens - but you can see that the horn has been trimmed in an increasingly common, pan-African desperation to dissuade poaching

We did see a white rhino towards main camp, but in general, I am not yet sure that Hwange is living up to its reputation as a game concentration hotspot. Theories abound that everything was poached as shops ran out of goods in the hyper-inflation era, but I think it’s is far more likely that game just voted with its feet as pumps were not pumped during this time (there is no natural, perennial surface water in Hwange, and the pumps can consequently attract animals from hundreds of miles around).

Elephant bulls drinking from a leaky pump pipe at a dam

It is quite plausible that they just upped and left towards Botswana. Staff are wonderful though and doing a sterling job keeping everything going with the resources available to them.

The 'little' things - Dung Beetle. The stubby can is there for scale

We ate in the restaurant. The food was wholesome rather than gourmet. A South African family joke about unavailabilities and approximations to the somewhat dated, published menu, “So what do you have available?” they disingenuously mock. Personally I think that these guys are doing the best they can. Zimbabwe needs visitors, at this level, it is global heritage that is being squandered by the gross measures imposed by the world police upon Uncle Bob’s regime.

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Caprivi – Mahango National Park and Popa Falls

Sunday, 3 July 2011, Roy’s Camp

In the morning I snapped at Rachel, for tidying up after my shadow. She was leaning off the bed in the van, holding the toilet door open for me, whilst I was having a wee. Maybe I’m just irritable? But I think she seems to be overcompensating for all of my negative criticism about what she won’t do [entertain "4x4" routes],  by doing more ‘helpful’ things, than I either need or desire. For in the context of disability and independence, I’m afraid I perceive such gestures as giving too much emphasis towards one’s limitations and encroaching upon one’s ability too. That is to say they are (paradoxically) ‘disabling’.

However I subsequently ponder upon the human bias, to characterise or define others by one’s own perception of their failings, rather than by their strengths, which are too often taken for granted or simply ignored. Rachel is of course holding the trip together, and at the same time, relatively straight out of the NHS office, is still coming to terms with the fact that it is not a holiday. We are seeing risky and novel situations, and Africa does not mollycoddle (unless you pay through the nose for it)!

Blue Waxbills drink from a leaky tap on the edge of our pitch. We start off early to do the four hours to the Popa Falls Rapids at Divindu, for our next camp. We will pick up supplies along the way.

Rachel has learnt from fellow campers www.go-to-africa.de who were staying in Roy’s camp with their huge MAN truck (although they were originally considering an Azalai before that came up second-hand), that the ferry from Alexandria has been “Suspended due to the current situation in Syria”. Rachel seems preoccupied by this. It is a problem, but to my thinking, not necessarily of immediate concern as it it may resolve. However, It possibly does have a bearing on our route, for example, it may mean that we ship home from southern Africa, in which case we won’t go as far north as Ethiopia – so no need to go to Harare, where we have heard that it is still possible to obtain an Ethiopian visa from the embassy there, rather than have to courier our passports to London. [Ethiopia had decreed that visas will only be issued in your home country's embassy. Once issued, they are not valid long enough for us to have obtained them before we left the UK.]

The next campsite, Ngepi camp at the very north of the Panhandle was busy, full in fact, but they managed to squeeze us in next to a Dragoman truck (driven by the charming Italian Gino and amiable Brit’ Hannah). Rachel has talked to a few people at the bar, the  consensus is that, “Botswana is busy”. It is holiday season for Zambia.

We also had our first brush with the Law today, just as the Land Rover clocked its ten thousandth mile, we were approaching the town of Rundu. There was a stop sign in the road, after several reduce speed signs and barrels placed here and there. It was the sort of thing we’d seen on roadworks in the rest of Namibia. I stopped, there was a tent under a tree, also not uncommon, as road workers often camp on site, given the distances. There was one person under the tree sat in the shade. After a few seconds, I decided nothing was happening so started to pull away, at the same time a policewoman ran from the tent, hurriedly putting her cap on. I stopped again and wound down the window, only to get a dressing down, “Why are you speeding through like that? You must stop at the stop sign!”

” Sorry, yes of course, No Sir, yes Sir, three bags full Sir.”

” Where are you going”? – “Er Rundee.”

” Where?!” – Incredulous look

“Rundoo” Rachel said. ” Oh, go on then.”

She must have thought we didn’t stop at all, and humble pie is the best way forward. Another lesson learnt, especially before Zimbabwe I think!

Mahango, the top of the delta's 'panhandle' is the blue water on the bottom right

Monday, 4 July 2011, Ngepi Camp

Sable antelope

The loudest dawn chorus yet, it even drowned out the departing Dragoman! Notably Cape turtle doves, the Grey Go-away Bird of the Lowrie family (named after its call), and Hornbills stood out. Hippos were sounding, adjacent to this unfenced River camp last night too. The plan for today is to visit Mahango National Park and stay at Popa Falls tonight. I have asked my friend Russ, back in Blighty, to investigate the latest state of play regarding the Alexandria ferry.

18:15 hours

The terrain is flat and open with enough trees to add interest. Occasionally the track goes on to the river bank to give fantastic views. The river is wide even at this formative, delta stage.

Red Lechwe

A very pleasant and worthwhile day in Mahango National Park on the Botswana border, flanked by the Okavango River as it starts to fan out towards the Panhandle. We stayed on the picturesque eastside of the park, as it flanks the river.

We were lucky enough to see Sable, beautiful except for one dead one by a waterhole, and, we think Lechwe (although they had no horns so female),  a fleeting glimpse of a Situanga as it darted between shrubs across the track, elephant, and the largest crocodile I think I’ve ever seen. But fantastically and best of all, Rachel spotted a young male hippo browsing in a thicket. We managed to get some very good and rare daytime photos of this shy (at least on land) animal. We also saw baboons and vervets.

We are now camped at Popa ‘Falls’ for the night, which at 3m drop, over a protracted length, are more of a small, rapid torrent than a falls! Some fellow tourists, from South Africa, who were also driving Mahango, cheerfully informed us that ” There is definitely going to be a war in the Sudan”, based on their perception of current events there. Hmmm, just what we need, something else to add to Rachel’s increasing concerns about ‘up north’.

Plans are again revised about our immediate route and we now intend to go to Ngoma, then Kasane in Botswana, on our way to Victoria Falls for an extended Zimbabwe tour – Hwange, Bulawayo and great Zimbabwe, Harare and eastwards towards Tanzania at least thats’s it stands now!

Pleasant enough camping at Popa Falls, but Ngepi has better facilities and is cheaper!

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Towards Caprivi – Roy’s Camp

Caprivi Strip – Etosha to the left and Zim on the right, the Okavango Delta and its ‘pan-handle’ can be seen to the south of the strip, above Maun.

A straightforward drive today, pleasantly all on tarmac. We stopped briefly at National Tyres in Tsumeb (a very pleasant looking town) as the rear offside tyre had a split between the treads. The manager there advised to carry on and keep an eye on it. We may change it for a spare at some point after we’ve extracted as much wear as we can.

Roy’s is a pleasant place with a well thought out layout with bits of ‘decor’ (horns, skulls, weathered wood, farm bric-a-brac etc) around the tree-shaded pitches and the bar, pool, restaurant area.

The restaurant was enticing, but we cooked spaghetti bolognese though, as at £16 per person the menu was too rich for us!

We are also trying to plan our onward route in as much that will determine the border crossing point. The question is, how to see Victoria Falls and visit Botswana/Zimbabwe without paying for two Zambian visas. Further, we are not sure on what might be possible in Botswana. With the “High cost, low-volume” strategy for tourism, combined with their busiest season being July through to September, it may be that we can’t actually get accommodation on any sensible route. The Bradt guide says that many private sector campsites “do not take pre-bookings from individual campers”.  A further concern is the ‘technical’ nature of some routes. We are only one vehicle and if we should get stuck, the physical work to recover ourselves will fall mainly on Rachel, who balks at any reference to”4×4″ labelled byways on the map. (This is since the River episodes in Palmwag, and despite us having a 4×4 and a reasonable driver!) To be fair, it is very difficult to know what exactly is meant by “4×4″ in any given African context!

If we should get the equations wrong, the consequences are at the very least expensive (time, fuel, repairs, health and well-being), but again, what are we after on this expedition? We will need a plan by tomorrow.

 

Saturday, 2 July 2011

The Wallas diesel hob has failed again. How are we to rely on it if we were to cross Chobe (a two week ’4×4 route)? I think that a ghillie kettle would be more effective. At least then, we could easily make tea in the mornings!

Our immediate destination is by no means clear. Route planning is being thwarted by Rachel’s intransigence on anything marked as “4×4″ on the map. I am exasperated as in essence this applies to all game areas in Botswana and Zimbabwe! I am at a loss on how to proceed therefore, and have left her with the books and maps to make a decision. However she has avoided this most of the day by being busy washing and tidying the van, as we have a two-day stop. I do empathise, but the continent is not a cakewalk, especially if you want to see and do the things that formed the basis upon which you forfeited your career and immediate wealth……    as well as leaving family, the dog, and friends for the duration. Rant over (for now).

All said, I am confident that we will find a common ground to at least allow progress and the appropriate border crossing for Caprivi.

The choices seem to be:

1) Kasane (Botswana) – get bearings and proceed, possibly to Victoria Falls (Zimbabwe)

2) Livingstone  (Zambia) – then to Kasane and Zimbabwe

3) the Okavango Panhandle (West), Maun, Maremi, Chobe, Victoria Falls (Zimbabwe), Livingstone (Zambia)

4) Livingstone and then to Victoria Falls and Hwange, (Zimbabwe) – missing out Botswana all together.

In the evening we contacted Lucy and Jaco, friends of ours in the UK, to find out their Botswana route of a couple of years ago. Very helpful but they did not have to book ahead at the time. We eventually worked out that they were lucky enough to do their trek before the ‘new’ booking policy came into play. They kindly offered to make some availability enquiries for us, but we are not optimistic regarding Botswana.

Hence current thinking is to go ‘Option 4′ and head for Livingstone and then into Zimbabwe to Hwange National Park. After all it is an extension of all that is in Botswana’s Chobe and Maremi. The animals at least don’t have the visa fees to consider.

 


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Palmwag to Etosha – Broken Down Grader

We have done our bit for Nam’. We had just left Palmwag and at the junction to head towards Etosha, we were flagged down by two chaps, one older one in a sort of Day-glo jacket. We explained that we had no room for a hitch hiker (common in these remote parts with no public transport).” No that’s fine” they explained, ” but you see the grader needs oil, it’s about 50 km up the road.” We accommodated the large drum in the passenger foot well after all it wasn’t far to go. And we began the steady climb towards Grootberg Pass – just the sort of terrain and surface that was going to push the auto box transmission temperature.

It was a spectacular drive. Past a few villages with’ craft stalls’ – crystals of quartz and Springbok horns scavenged in the surround mainly. A huge escarpment dominated the right flank as we climbed and twisted. The gear oil got to 120°C. Cab heating on full and in low box, we continued at a steady 20mph up to 1450m altitude.

A triangular warning sign indicated to look out for elephants, although what we could do on such a narrow road with a precipitous drop, I’m not sure! Best enjoy the spectacular views then. Slow going, up and down – another Namibian landscape too big to photograph. No grader.

Some new terrain briefly, some vertical slates, shattered, framing koppies that looked for all the world like natural’ Boot Hills’ – all very eerie. Goats but no grader – 50 miles.

On we went, at about 80 miles (twice the estimated distance) we gave the oil to three guys resting by their stranded equipment. Bemused thank your, but the system worked. We were nearer the town of Outjo than Palmwag  – why the oil wasn’t sent from there….?!

The road flanking the southern edge of Etosha is straight and climbs slightly for about 2 hours. Thorny scrub is all there is to see on both sides, other than a couple of treacherous, axle stripping, washouts it was a straightforward drive to Etosha Safari Camp, about 20 km south of Anderson gate into the park itself. The site was recommended by Clive and Taniya as being cheaper and better than the one in Etosha.

It was busy and welcoming with a novel quadrangle, bar, pool, restaurant complex. The most ‘ resort’ we’d seen in Namibia but tasteful and relatively quiet. A drunk Ex Pat from West Ham, ex-Australia, now Beijing (with his long-suffering Australian wife) did his best to embarrass Anglo German relations. We retire to bed lest be tarred by him.

Tomorrow, Etosha Park. We are curious to see what it offers and how we proceed from here.

Looking back on May and June …….we have learnt a lot. Rachel has now got more adjusted to African road-life c/w life at home (remember she finished work on the Thursday and was here by the Tuesday – I’d had a few months to get prepped on the psyche). I’ve tempered (a bit) some reckless tendencies (along the “Let’s try it, what could the be the worst that could happen?” sort of approach) – a sensible and happy medium. We may yet make it back alive.

Namibia is huge, it offers a lot, but I think they do a good job of disguising how you could do yourself harm here by not taking it seriously. Both South Africa and Namibia can be cold, and generally that is the case at night this time of year, especially whenever anyone suggests “It’s coming in from the Cape!” (It was 3 1/2°C last night.) We are good bush cooks now both braii and iron pot. African terrain is big and callous, but people are indescribably nice despite, or more likely, because of that. The Internet is crap. Get a dongle before you leave the UK.

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Skeleton Coast to Palmwag

I slept well. We have frequently chosen to seek the ocean, but today we will leave it until home. It so is entirely disinterested and callous in all it offers is its regular South Atlantic winter of relentless wind and roaring waves. Still we will miss it as genuine sea-siders!

Another point to note from yesterday is that as we checked the tyres at the Henties Bay fill up, Rachel commented that both rears were high at 520Kpasc (fronts were both okay at 310Kpasc). She asked the guy to let them down to”480″ thinking they must be hot. Didn’t ring right to me and checking the driver’s log, noted they should be 440Kpasc! I enquire, “How long have they been 480?”. ” A long time.” Is the reply (since Springbok)

I suspect that the ride will be more comfortable from here on in and certainly components (such as the calorifier) may now have more chance of holding up!

By early evening we reach Palmwag Camp. It has been a long and very interesting drive today. The Skeleton Coast Park did not disappoint even if the last four, pre-satellite navigation, shipwrecks are now nearly all returned back to nature and barely noticeable. The different geology in the desert is visually astounding. Black ash like covered dunes to rocky white and any shade of reds and oranges in between.

We leave the sea south of Torra Bay and turn inland towards the Springbok gate. The mountains are spectacular. They look like Scottish Glen postcards, but the colour is from lichens rather than heathers. The climb  of 1400 m causes the transmission to get very hot. We see giraffe, surprising as there does not appear to be much in the way of trees for them to browse upon. Soon after we see some Oryx, who are with our first, lone, Hartman’s Zebra. A little later, some way away we see a breeding herd. We get no photos of the giraffe, by the time the camera is out they have decided to turn tail. The zebra is photographed for ‘proof only’ of seeing this rare species, as he too is beyond aesthetic range for the 400 mm lens.

And all of this game after the Springbok exit gate from the Skeleton Coast reserve. There is the odd village here and there, some with shambolic ‘table craft stalls’. Rachel decides not to stop, I would have liked to, at least at one,as these are not the ‘made in China’ curios seen in most places. There is enough elephant dung on the road to suggest their presence in the neighbourhood.

We get to Palmwag on a dodgy road (the one towards Sesfontein and Purros). The reception advise that “Purros is possible in a day, but the roads are bad.” It strikes me that Clive and Taniya passed this way before the heavy rains of January and February.

Our pitch is next to a river, complete with fish, and either an otter (probably) or (maybe a ) mongoose on the far bank. Flocks of weavers follow its narrow course to their evening roosts. There is a’ whoosh’ as each squadron flies past. Yellow Billed Hornbills make a quiet melody on the far side briefly. We broke our beer fast of two whole days and adjourned to the surprisingly busy bar. This is quite an idyllic spot on the edge of a huge concession that stretches all the way back to the Skeleton Coast.

 

We decided to eat at the bar in the Boma area. Very nice too (steak) with the best chips I think I’ve ever had, with the possible exception of my grandfather Ken’s! The decision to eat was cemented by the pleasant banter with the staff. The pretty Stella and the diligent, Arsenal supporting Samuel. We talk about the weather and they (particularly Stella) say about how people have died from cold and how crops have been washed away. We talk about our trip. Selfishly we say how much it cost, how difficult it will be to reconcile on our return etc. They tell us how few opportunities there are (to work) in Namibia, despite having a population of just under 3 million.

Stella asks “How do you find our English?”. ” Very good actually indeed.”

” Oh, we learn only after matric. Some guests the other day wrote [on the feedback forms] that our English was bad.” I suggest that they should ask, “Well you talk to us in Damara then!”  Which they don’t quite get. It’s an irony that bilingual people are doing bar work and English (only)-speaking twits are sat on the other side of the bar. In our ignorance, I’d include us too.

 

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