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Wild, Wonderful Namibia

Two weeks in Namibia– what an adventure. This was, by leaps and bounds, the best two weeks of my life. It is a land of striking contrasts, from the vast red desert of Sossusvlei, to the dramatic Skeleton Coast, to charming fishing towns, to lush forests packed with wildlife. The second most sparsely populated country in the world certainly provided a much needed relief from the hustle of New York. Here’s a vignette of our journey. I hope it reminds you what a beautiful world we live in (and how cute warthogs are).

We landed in Windhoek well rested after two nights in Johannesburg. After picking up our SUV at the airport, we headed out on our adventure. Our first stop was N/a’ankuse Lodge and Wildlife Sanctuary. Driving down the dirt road, I was shocked at the quick beauty of Namibia and the startling green of what has been an unusually abundant rainy season. Even on the hour drive to the lodge, we saw baboons playing on the side of the road and a giraffe’s substantial top half protruding from the greenery.

N/a'ankuse is a beautiful oasis with a swimming pool overlooking a canyon teeming with baboons, reptiles, and the adorable rock dassie. We were quickly visited by a quite distinguished warthog family right by the pool. They shuffled about, not terribly concerned by our presence, and we watched with great amusement as they kneeled down with their front legs to reach the short grasses.

Due to large amounts of wildlife and a country made up almost entirely of privately owned farms, there is constant conflict between human and wildlife. Leopards, lions, and cheetahs preying on livestock frequently end up being killed by farmers. N/a’ankuse is a wildlife sanctuary that not only promotes education of the local farming community, but also takes in injured animals and orphaned predators too accustomed to humans to be re-released into the wild. It is important to travel responsibly, and I was pleased that with both activities we participated in, the lodge was as good as their word and visitors were not allowed to handle the wildlife in any way. The carnivores who are un-releasable are castrated and no captive breeding of any kind takes place at the sanctuary.

The first evening, we attended a carnivore feeding in which the guide took us around the lush property to see the rescue cheetahs, lions, African wild dogs, leopards, and caracals up close during their feeding sessions. This turned out to be an incredible photo opportunity as the caracals and female lions lunged for their meat and Clarence the lion roared at charged at us in a fantastic display of might. We enjoyed hearing the stories of how the various rescues ended up at the sanctuary and about their research and conservation efforts. We finished our evening with dinner in the lodge and watched our first of several torrential downpours. The rainy season arrived this year in Namibia after years of drought with a ferocity that was impressive to behold. Storm clouds gathered up out of nowhere and rain threatened to break right through the doors. The lodge served us all champagne and we spent a lovely evening admiring the great power of nature.

The next morning, we were thrilled to take part in a cheetah walk. Several young cheetahs who are permanent residents at N/a’aunkuse due to their familiarity with humans (I believe these ones were hand raised by a farmer after their mother was killed) and a rescue caracal who is best friends with the cheetahs now call the sanctuary home. We had the amazing opportunity to walk up close with the big cats as they exercised and played in the fields. Leaping out of the vehicle to chase his friend, one of the cheetahs ran right into my leg and I felt the intense power of his speed zoom past me. The cheetahs dashed joyfully around the field along with their caracal friend, who tried her best to keep up, and attempted to climb trees which, hilariously, they are not very good at. I will always smile when I think of our guide as he yelled in his charming accent,“COME CHEETAH!” and remember the sonorous hum of a cheetah purring as he lay down in the grass.

We said goodbye to our first lodge and began the six-hour drive to Sossusvlei, the famous dunes of Namibia. The drive was stressful and wild and the rocky dirt roads had me in constant fear that our two spare tires would not be enough to get us to our next destination. It will also be one of my favorite memories. The rainy season meant flash flooding and we frequently had to drive into water stretched across the road. I took my own terrified turn at the wheel, driving on the opposite side of the road with the clutch in my left hand and the rocks jostling the car to the point that I was sure it was about to crumble into pieces. The scenery was startlingly beautiful, and we watched the greenery stretch up into tall mountains, which transformed into rocky mountains, and eventually to soft, beautiful dunes.

We stayed at the Sossus Dune Lodge, the only accommodation located inside the park, which affords its guests the unique right to arrive at the dunes at sunrise and stay until sunset. We kept postponing this trip so that we could stay at this lodge, and I’m so glad that we did. At night on the deck of our beautiful chalet, we watched the milky way unfold it’s wings above us. I have never been awe-stricken as I was when I saw the startling number of stars in our universe suddenly, and for the first time in my life, showing themselves to me.

The next morning, we headed out at 5:30am to make it to the farthest dune, Big Daddy, and Deadvlei (meaning Dead Marsh) to watch the sunrise. After hiking through the cool desert darkness, we crested a small dune to see, stretched out ahead of us, the stark, hauntingly white valley nestled between the looming red giant of Big Daddy and Dune 6. The only other people in the entire area were the few hikers climbing Big Daddy. We opted to head to the valley to marvel at the 700 year old trees, dead and scorched by the blazing sun in total isolation. Imagine that– a much photographed, famous site that you have all to yourself. There are so few places like this left in the world, and it was pure magic.

After an afternoon respite at the pool from the blistering sun, we headed back out to the dunes to watch the sunset. The sky turned its lovely pink hue and the rosiness cloaked the towering sand mountains.

On the drive back, we stopped by a particularly fetching tree to take photos of the night sky. Once again, we were blanketed by the universe. I’ve never felt so small and so wonderful all at once. The peacefulness of the empty expanse of desert was all our own and as I lay on the roof of our SUV admiring the masterpiece the only sound I could hear was my heartbeat.

The following morning, we decided to tackle Dune 45 before leaving Sossusvlei. We woke up at 5am and headed out in the darkness, watching the kilometer markers until we found number 45. We were the first to arrive, which I learned is not the best thing as far as dune hiking goes. Each step was painfully difficult as my feet sunk into the sand, affording far more work than just the steep climb alone. After an embarrassingly short time, I had to break and sit down, exhausted. I was pleased to see that several people behind me were doing the same thing. One intrepid hiker passed us and his footprints were a welcome reprieve as we struggled up the ridge of the dune. The crest of the dune seemed a mirage that was constantly farther and farther away, but at last we were gifted with the ability to collapse into the granite colored sand and admire the sun-kissed, glowing dunes all around and below us.

After some time enjoying our hard-earned view, we took off like mad children running down the mountain, red dust flying up behind and around us. The sharp drop looked dangerous, but as soon as you start running and your shoes become filled with pounds of sand, you realize you are safe and you are free. This mad dash downward was among the most fun things I’ve ever done and I remember wishing there was a chairlift to take me back up to do it again (because there was no way in hell I was going to make that hike again that day).

From the dunes, we drove four hours up to the coastal town of Swakopmund. The drive took us through land teeming with oryxes, giraffes, and wildebeests and through a spectacular canyon with curvy dirt roads and no guard-rails along the cliffs. Swakop, as the locals call it, is an incredible place in that while still African in many ways, it feels every bit as German. At one of the dinners, we were in a room of local people all speaking German and eating German cuisine in a German built building. It was an incredibly interesting remnant of colonialism. Our other dinner was spent on the water, watching the treacherous waves of the Skeleton Coast crash against the shore. We slept in a cute b&b, Villa Margherita, with an incredibly gracious staff and in the morning headed on a guided tour of Sandwich Harbor. All I knew about Sandwich Harbor when I booked the tour was that it was an incredible place to photograph birds. What I didn’t know was that our guide would be one of the most interesting, admirable people I’ve ever met in my life. He was accompanied by an apprentice guide, pronounced something like Schteimie. Schteimie was a tall, heavy set man with a thick German accent and a jolly disposition who made us laugh often. A born and raised Namibian who had spent his life in the banking industry, he found retired life to be boring and was hoping for a job with our other guide, the owner.

The owner, Bruno Nebe, was a fascinating conversationalist. Any topic that came up, from international politics, to birds, to Louisiana, to agriculture brought out this astonishing well of knowledge and educated opinions. As I fumbled with my new tripod that I bought in Swakopmund, due to my previous one breaking at the dunes, it came out that Bruno was also a National Geographic photographer for many years. As if I wasn’t in complete awe already, we learned that Bruno is also an active conservationist and wildlife advocate. He has done incredible work on behalf of some of the world’s most endangered species, including the black rhino and the pangolin. You can watch his TED talk on the ivory trade here. Although he essentially started the first tours that existed in Sandwich Harbor over twenty years ago and has towed many a stuck vehicle out since, his vehicle was the one that broke down this time (twice). We thoroughly enjoyed the extra time we got to spend discussing conservation, and the laughter at the repeated car troubles only enhanced our already perfect day. Oh yeah, and we got to photograph some birds too!

After bidding farewell to darling Swakopmund, we embarked on happily paved roads en route to our safari destination, Etosha National Park. We arrived at Okaukuejo Camp, a rustic, government owned property with the sole benefit of being inside the actual park and quickly headed out on our first of many self-drives around the park. We saw countless springbok, interesting birds, zebra, jackals marking their territory, sociable weavers in their incredible communal bird’s nests, more giraffes than I knew what to do with, and countless other animals. Our way back was blocked by flooded roads so we had to find a different route to our lodge, racing the congregating clouds.

The following day was spent self-driving around Etosha some more. The freedom and joy of this experience is tremendous. No crowded safari vehicles, the pure carte blanche to stop and spend as much time gawking at the baby springbok as we liked, and the thrill of spotting wildlife all on our own. After a passing vehicle alerted us to a pack of lions which was supposedly up ahead and being unable to find them, we drove, disappointed, to a waterhole. Like the other waterholes in the rainy season, this one was completely lacking in wildlife. As we turned around and headed back down the road, a shape took form in the distance. We slowly moved our car forward until that shape became a lithe, exquisite cheetah drinking from a puddle in the road.

We said goodbye to Okaukuejo and we began our drive through and across Etosha, heading for the beautiful Mushara Lodge. The smaller roads we chose were completely deserted and we felt quite wonderfully alone in the wilderness. Like I said, there were giraffes everywhere. We were so accustomed to seeing them that we had stopped slowing down when we saw the great beasts peaking their gentle faces out from the trees. However, having not stopped in a while, we luckily slowed down for this particular giraffe. Through the dense bush just to the right of this giraffe, we spotted a shadow moving in the trees. With hope and anticipation we drew in a breath and stopped the car. I propped my telephoto lens atop the open window ledge and watched as one of the world’s most endangered animals emerged from the bush, and then one of the world’s most endangered animals’ baby followed behind her. Yes, we saw the critically endangered black rhino and her baby. I said to Misha, “you know, this could be dangerous– rhinos are very protective of their young.” Fascinated, we went on observing. They were foreign, magnificent creatures, grazing next to the always amiable giraffe. And then the black rhino saw me. She stopped directly in front of my window, watching me and the click–click–click of my camera, her shoulders squared toward me. Then the huffing started–loud, threatening, incredibly exciting. She stomped her feet back and forth and back and forth in her pomp. Faster than you can imagine, the rhino charged directly at us. I hollered “Go, go, go!” and we spun our wheels and lunged the car forward while I continued to click away (see blurry photos below). A few yards farther ahead, in our admittance to the rhino that she won and that we weren’t a threat, we stopped to watch mother and child cross the road together. Such an adorable baby. Such a brave mother.

The following day, we took a guided game drive, having heard that Mushara’s guides were excellent, and spent the morning under the care of a vivacious woman from the San Bushmen tribe. She was determined to find us a lion but after much tracking of the footprints in the road, and monitoring the giraffe carcass from last night’s kill, we had to concede that the lions were too far into the high grasses of the rainy season to locate. We did, however, happily and finally see our elephants. We were quite fortunate, as the elephants usually migrate to the unreachable north section of Etosha, but for some reason, this day a lovely elephant family graced our presence. Their wrinkles and crevices and lumpy wonderful existence was a joy to watch. The baby frolicked and played with her trunk while one of the adults scratched his bottom on a termite mound.

Leaving Mushara Lodge, I took to the wheel for one last morning self-drive into Etosha. We watched regal kudu walk along the salt pan and again marveled at the abundance of baby animals that we saw. We saw a game drive vehicle parked up ahead, and with hope pulled up behind it. In the distance, relaxing under a tree lay the king and queen themselves. A male and female lion in all their glory and every bit as splendid as their reputation.

To round out our journey, we visited Okonjima, home of the Africat Foundation. This enormous nature reserve hosts a large population of big cats and also works to rehabilitate cheetahs and leopards for reintroduction into the wild. Entering the nature reserve felt very much like going into Jurassic Park–lots of security gates, incredible scenery, and a sense of excitement knowing that there could be a leopard hiding in the tall grasses nearby. The first evening, we joined a drive to track radio-collared leopards. Having just completed our self-drive safari, we were worried this would feel quite artificial, however it was one of the most exciting adventures imaginable. The collars which are used to monitor some of the leopards for research purposes and are simply radio signals, not GPS. The guides follow the beeping in the general direction of the leopard, off-roading and driving through canyons, flooded roads, and terrain I would have never believed a vehicle could conquer. We did not find the first leopard we tracked, who expertly hid her babies from us, but the second we found by sitting and waiting anxiously near a creek until he showed himself at last. His eye was bloodied from battling with another leopard, being a dominant and especially aggressive male. The few moments we had watching him before he disappeared back into the mountain forest impressed upon me the awesome danger of this animal. We also enjoyed seeing much of the game that lives in Okonjima, including the mountain zebra with their basset-hound-like dewlap, and the gigantic eland, which can weigh up to a ton.

The next morning, we embarked on a cheetah tracking adventure and found a trio of cheetahs (which had been introduced to Okonjima and rehabilitated by the Africat Foundation) feasting on a fresh zebra kill. Their faces were covered in blood and their bellies were full, so we were able to walk on foot to get up close to them. Our guide was a bird lover, as were the lovely older Scottish couple we shared the game drive with, and helped us spot many interesting species. We then visited the Africat Foundation to learn about their interesting history. They began historically as a cattle farm and part of the problem-shooting big cats who kill their livestock and transformed into an exceptional organization that teaches farmers of the folly of this behavior, educates and introduces children,the future farmers to big cats, and rehabilitates cheetahs and leopards for release into the wild. That evening, we rounded off our adventure with a hike on property. A dung beetle rolled its expertly crafted ball determinedly up-hill, a tiny Sisyphus, and reminded us that the wonders of this country are everywhere.

I did not bid goodbye to Namibia, but rather until we meet again.

Wildlife seen: African lion, cheetah, black-backed jackal, bat-eared fox, cape fox, banded mongoose, scrub hare, warthog, African elephant, black rhino, rock dassie, Burchell's zebra, Hartmann's mountain zebra, Damara dik-dik, blackfaced impala, kudu, gemsbok, springbok, red hartebeest, steenbok, giraffe, blue wildebeest, eland, ground squirrel, honey badger, cape vulture, secretery bird, southern pale chanting goshawk, tawny eagle, great white pelican, greater flamingo, lesser flamingo, kori bustard, northern black korhaan, red-billed hornbill, southern yellow-billed hornbill, lilac-breasted roller, European bee-eater, Swanson's spurfowl, red-billed francolin, grey go-away bird, shaft-tailed whydah, ostrich (among many other un-identified birds)

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