In August 2009, I set off on a month-long trip to Africa to join a tour with travel company Africa-in-Focus. This page details that trip with a day-by-day report with links to photographs, followed by a review of the trip and assorted links. Links to GPS tracks for each day will be added later.
DAY TO DAY ACTIVITIES
Wednesday 5th August
After months of planning the trip, it began with a British Airways flight from Bermuda to Gatwick, London. Three female teenagers in the row behind me talked loudly, non-stop, for most of the flight. As a result, I got very little sleep.
Thursday 6th August
Arrived at Gatwick Airport about 7.30am and caught the 8.10am Gatwick Express bus to Heathrow Airport, arriving about 9.00am. My next flight was scheduled to leave about 7.00pm and I was told that I could not check my luggage until 4.00pm. Facing a long wait at the airport and an even longer flight, I opted to check into the Sofitel Hotel at the airport for a 'day-rate'. This allowed me to get a comfortable 4-hour sleep, get up for lunch and then get a further 1-hour sleep before checking out around 5.00pm. This really helped me to cope with a very long travel schedule.
About 7.00pm, departed Heathrow on a British Airways flight to Johannesburg, South Africa. This flight was full and I was unable to get much sleep.
Friday 7th August
Arrived at Johannesburg about 7.50am but had to wait until 8.30am for the British Airways check-in desk to open. The flight to Livingstone, Zambia was pretty full but I was in business class and had an entire row of 3 seats to myself - shame that the arm rests between seats were fixed in position preventing me from stretching out!
I arrived at Livingstone Airport about 1.10pm (6.10pm Bermuda time), about 46 hours after leaving Bermuda. Knowing that I planned to cross into Zimbabwe and return to Zambia, I opted for the multi-entry visa ($80) rather than the single entry visa ($50). After clearing Immigration I was soon in a taxi and heading to the Waterfront Hotel in Livingstone.
The Waterfront is situated on the bank of the Zambezi River and has a number of chalet-type bungalows in addition to a camp-site. I planned the trip to arrive in Zambia a couple of days before the Africa in Focus tour commenced, so I was booked into a chalet room for the first two nights. The room was clean and comfortable but I soon noticed the huge mosquitoes on the walls and ceiling. Large gaps in the doors ensure the mozzies have free and easy access! Thankfully the beds have mosquito nets over them.
After the long flights I was exhausted and went straight to bed. I awoke about 4.00pm to the sounds of African drumming coming from the neighbouring hotel. I headed to the hotel bar, overlooking the Zambezi, and had my first Mosi beer ($2 each). A very pleasant welcome back to Africa! The hotel offers a 3-course buffet dinner at 7.00pm each evening for $12US. After dinner and another Mosi beer I headed back to the room at 8.00pm to catch up on some sleep.
Saturday 8th August
Awoke at 7.15am, fully refreshed and headed to the dining area for the breakfast that is included in the price of the room. I was a little surprised to find that it was a full English-style breakfast (bacon, sausage, eggs, baked beans, tomatoes, onions) but it was delicious and set me up nicely for the day to come. Today I was heading to Zimbabwe!
I took a taxi from the hotel to the Falls Bridge. The taxi driver took me as far as he was permitted and dropped me off just before the first check-point. We agreed that he would pick me up at the same place at 6.00pm and I set off to walk across the bridge and into Zimbabwe. I paid for a Zimbabwean visa at the border ($55US) and continued the walk across. I was soon at the entrance to the Victoria Falls park. After lining up for a short time, I paid my $20 US entry fee and headed to the various viewing areas. The Falls lived up to my expectations and were simply stunning! I had only taken my small point-and-shoot camera that day as I didn't want to carry my SLR all day. I'm glad that I did as there was a lot of rain/mist at many of the viewing areas caused by the falls. I wouldn't have wanted to expose my SLR to the mist.
I left the Falls and walked over to the craft stalls opposite the entrance. They had a variety of carvings and trinkets for sale but the quality was poor. As a collector of sculptures by the Shona Master Fine Artists of Zimbabwe, I was hoping to find better quality work. I'd been told to visit the Victoria Falls Hotel where there is a gallery of Shona artwork on display. After taking some directions, I headed off on a short walk along the main road until I found the turn-off to the hotel. I was glad I made the journey.
The Victoria Falls Hotel is an old colonial style place that, in some ways, reminded me of the Raffles Hotel in Singapore. I walked through the hotel and came out onto the rear lawned area with stunning elevated open views over the surrounding countryside, with the Falls Bridge in the centre of the panorama. Beautiful! I took a walk around the open-air art gallery (called Stone Dynamics) but most of the pieces were abstracts and were expensive. I then took a table for lunch on the verandah overlooking the great vista. I ate a delicious meal including crocodile tail and a couple of glasses of red wine. What a wonderful way to spend the afternoon! I highly recommend a lunch visit here for anyone visiting the Falls.
I left the hotel and continued walking the short distance into the town of Victoria Falls. The main road of the town is lined with small gift shops catering to tourists. I spent some time visiting the stores and made a couple of purchases. I then stopped at an open-air display of large stone sculptures. It was whilst I was looking at the art work that I was approached by a 'old gentleman' who actually turned out to be about my age!! He offered to take me to the 'craft market' where stone sculptures could be purchased. Initially skeptical and on guard, I agreed to follow him along a side street. In a short time we came across rows and rows of stalls where men were trying to sell a variety of arts and crafts. I wanted to find some Shona sculptures and this place was full of them. Amazingly, it seemed like I was the only tourist in the market that day and everyone wanted me to buy something from them.
I walked from shop to shop and from stall to stall, casually looking to see who had good quality stone sculptures.Much of what was on offer was of poor quality but I did find one shop and one stall where the quality seemed much better. The shop had pieces by artists whose names I recognised. The initial asking prices were hugely inflated but I was able to haggle and finally picked up a couple of pieces for about $100 US each. I now had two pieces of stone sculptures weighing about 20 lbs each and had quite a walk to the border post on the bridge. My friendly guide sensed a good tip coming and offered to carry both items to the border for me. Part way there I felt guilty and took one of the pieces from him so that we each carried one. He helped to get me through the checkpoints and the questions by the officials posted there about what we were carrying and, along the way, began his tale of why he needed a large amount of money to pay his rent for the month! He received a nice tip (but not what he claimed to need) and we parted ways. He was a nice 'old' man who had found a niche for himself, competing against the more aggressive young men who accosted us at every turn trying to sell copper bracelets. In fact, one of those young men followed me all the way to the Zambian border, begging me to buy some bracelets from him. The closer we got to the border, the lower the asking price.
As promised, my taxi driver was waiting for me on the Zambian side of the bridge and I was soon back at the Waterfront Hotel for a buffet dinner and a couple of beers. The hotel also has an Internet cafe so I was able to get online and send e-mails home. It had been a terrific first full day and I would encourage anyone to make the trip across the bridge to Zimbabwe for a day.
Sunday 9th August
This was the first day of the Southern Cross Tour with Africa-in-Focus so my first task after breakfast was to find the tour group. A notice on the message board told me where to look for them and I soon found them and the turquoise truck in the camp-site. After a few brief introductions, I headed back to the hotel room to move my luggage to the camp-site. It would be mainly tent-living from now on!
I was teamed up with Rob, from England. We would be sharing a tent for the rest of the trip. I was also given keys to the truck and stowed away my gear in one of the truck's storage compartments. We were supposed to have a group meeting at 1.30pm but two of the group had not yet arrived so the meeting was put back to 6.00pm. With time to kill until the meeting, a few of us headed into Livingstone after lunch to visit the museum and then go to the supermarket to buy some beers.
After the 6.00pm orientation meeting we ate dinner and had a few beers around the camp-fire before heading for the tent at 9.00pm. This was the start of what would become a pattern - in bed by about 9.00pm and often up in the morning about 5.30am! The time in Zambia would be free-time with only a boat cruise as an organised activity.
Monday 10th August
The temperature was a little cool when I emerged from my sleeping bag in the morning. The cold showers were more brutal! It turned out that one of the shower blocks only has cold water.
This was essentially a free day with only an afternoon boat cruise scheduled. I headed into Livingstone to do some shopping with the main objective being to find some suitable wrapping material that would keep my stone sculptures safe on the long and bumpy drive to South Africa. I finally found a shop that sold bubble wrap. A few minutes later I found a hardware store that sold pieces of dense foam (probably for chair cushions) and bought two pieces.
Back at the camp-site I spent the afternoon carving out relief shapes of the two sculptures in the foam so that I could sandwich the sculptures between the two pieces of foam for the long journey.
At 4.30pm we took a boat cruise from the Waterfront Hotel along the Zambezi River. It was a nice cruise with an open bar and food provided. Whilst on this cruise my Sony point-and-shoot camera became defective. The lens became stuck part way out so it couldn't take pictures. Fortunately, I had my Canon 50D digital SLR as my primary camera. Several other cameras 'broke down' during the trip so having a back-up camera is definitely a good idea.
Following the cruise we sat around the campfire for a while and went to bed at 9.00pm.
Tuesday 11th August
This was another free day on the tour schedule so I had booked a couple of optional activities for the day. The first was an elephant-back safari with Zambezi Elephant Trails that departed the hotel at 6.15am.
The tour picked up participants from various hotels and then drove us all to the elephant facility. The group of elephants were brought in by their handlers and we each were assigned an elephant to ride (two persons per elephant). I was assigned to Bop, the largest male in the group. We rode the elephants for about one hour and saw some impala and bushbuck. Following the ride we had the opportunity to interact with 'our' elephant and to feed him some pellets. We then ate a full English-style breakfast whilst the tour group put together a DVD of the elephant ride to show to us with the option to buy a copy. We were then driven back to our hotels, arriving about 11.00am.
After a couple of hours of relaxing and some lunch I headed out for my second experience of the day - this time Walking with Lions! Again, we were driven to the facility (next to the elephant safari and owned by the same company) where we were given a safety briefing on how we should interact with the lions. We were also told how the facility was working on a phased programme to return the lions to the wild. After the briefing we headed out on foot and soon met our two lions - two young females about 2 years old. This was a terrific experience as we were able to pet the lions and, amazingly, walk behind them whilst holding onto their tails! There were lots of opportunities for close-up photographs of the lions and the experience was well worth the cost of the activity (the combined elephant and lion activities cost a total of $230 US). After a provided light meal we watched the DVD of the activity. DVD's were for sale at $40 each.
We got back to the campsite about 7.00pm, where we ate dinner and were placed into work groups for the rest of the tour. As there were 16 people on the tour, we were split into four groups of 3 and one group of 4. The five-day work rotation schedule consisted of washing dishes, cleaning the truck, food preparation, first option for use of the company laptop and a free day.
Wednesday 12th August
Up at 6.15am to get showered, pack up gear and take down the tent prior to an 8.00am breakfast. After breakfast and washing the dishes, we departed the Waterfront heading to Botswana. At last, the travelling part of the tour was underway!
The border crossing into Botswana was uneventful. Once we had cleared Botswana Immigration (no visa fee) the tuck was placed onto a ferry to cross the river. We arrived at the Chobe Safari Lodge in Kasane about 1.00pm, having covered 98km in 4 hours. Several of us then spent a couple of hours browsing around the shops that are a short walk from the Lodge.
The Chobe Safari Lodge is a very nice facility on the bank of the Chobe River. In addition to the camp-site, it has lodge-rooms and an expansive restaurant and deck that overlook the river. We saw a large group of Striped Mongoose that appear to live on the property and we even had a pair of Warthogs walk through the centre of our camp-site.
Just after crossing into Botswana the crew had visited a butcher and purchased some fresh meat, so it was roast beef for dinner. Delicious!
Thursday 13th August
Up at 5.00am to be picked up at 6.15am for an early morning game drive in Chobe Game Reserve. It was a cold morning. I was wearing a shirt, a fleece and a jacket and was still feeling the cold on the drive in open top jeeps. Fortunately, the drivers handed out warm blankets before we left the hotel.
The game drive in Chobe was quite disappointing. We had heard so much about the huge herds of elephants in Chobe but the only elephant that we saw was a single specimen on the roadside after we left the park. We did get to see a group of lions and some impala, kudu, waterbuck and steenbok - some from a distance. The highlight of the drive were great photo opportunities for a Lilac Breasted Roller and a group of blue Starlings.
Following the game drive we had breakfast back at the camp-site and the rest of the morning was free-time (an opportunity to hand-wash some laundry and attend a photography workshop). Lunch was at 1.30pm and then we prepared for a boat cruise along the Chobe River.
The boat cruise made up for the disappointing game drive as there were lots of animals to be seen and plenty of photo opportunities. Game viewing included elephants, hippos, kudu, giraffe, red lechwe, crocodiles and a variety of birds. The cruise ended with a beautiful sunset.
Friday 14th August
We were up early at 5.00am to break down the tents and stow our gear. Breakfast was at 6.00am and we departed camp at 7.00am for a long day on the road. The drive through Botswana covered 627km and took 11 hours, including a lunch stop, arriving at the Audi Safari Lodge at 5.00pm.
We set up camp and helped with food preparation for a spaghetti carbonara dinner prepared by fellow tour members Marco and Carolina (from Italy). The camp-site had a wi-fi connection so there was an opportunity to catch up on e-mails before trying to get some sleep whilst neighbouring campers sang loudly and generally made a lot of noise!
Saturday 15th August
Once again, we were up at 5.00am to take down the tents and pack our gear. However, we could only pack a minimal amount of gear as we were heading into the Okavango Delta and we would be away from our truck for three nights.
A 6.00am breakfast was followed by a 7.00am departure to the nearby town of Maun. Several of the group had booked the optional small aircraft flight over the Delta from Maun Airport. Whilst they were enjoying their flight, the rest of us took advantage of the gift stores located opposite the airport as well as a nearby Internet cafe.
We departed Maun Airport about 11.00am for a 300km drive but stopped at a shopping area about 20 minutes later. Rather than spending time preparing and cooking lunch, we took a 30-minute lunch break and bought food from the local stores. Following lunch we hit the road and drove to Etsha 13 village where our truck would be parked for the next three days. Tents, mattresses, bags of gear and bottles of drinking water were all unloaded and transferred to a local truck for the 10km drive down a sandy track, arriving a Guma Lagoon Camp about 4.00pm.
We unloaded the truck, took a quick tour of the camp and then set up the tents. By 5.30pm we were sitting on the deck overlooking the Okavango Delta as daylight began to fade with a couple of beers. What a beautiful, serene location! Following dinner, I was in my tent by 9.00pm.
The next morning, Rob was still not in the tent. It turned out that he had got lost when returning from the bar. Unable to find the right tent, he spent the night sleeping on a woodpile in a nearby enclosure!
Sunday 16th August
Up at 6.15am to pack our limited supplies and take down the tents. Following breakfast at Guma Lagoon Camp, we loaded the gear onto speedboats for the journey to an island in the Delta.
We departed on the speedboats through the floating papyrus beds until we reached a mokoro station on one of the islands. We transferred to the mokoro canoes and then travelled for another 1.5 to 2 hours until we arrived at the island that would be our home for the night. This would be camping in its true form - no electricity, no running water, no bar and no flushing toilets. The 'bathroom' consisted of a plastic formed toilet over a hole in the ground surrounded by bushes.
The tents were soon pitched and we had lunch. At 2.30pm some of the group headed out for a swim whilst the rest took a guided walk around the island. We saw a couple of elephants in the distance and a Fish Eagle on its nest but, all in all, there wasn't much game to see.
At 4.30pm we went back out on the mokoros hoping to view some hippos. We did find a handful of hippos but they were too far away for photography. We then returned to camp for dinner - chicken stew with stuffed pumpkin. After dinner we had a few beers around the camp-fire and even toasted some marshmallows. By 9.00pm I was in the tent for the night.
Monday 17th August
Up at 6.25am in preparation for a 7.00am walk. We took a short mokoro ride to a neighbouring island for a morning game walk. We spotted a single elephant who began to pay us too much attention as he came in our direction! We stood still for a couple of nervous minutes until the elephant lost interest and turned away. We saw a couple more eagles but, again, there was little in the way of game to see. The disappointing aspect of the trip to this point was the scarcity of game - the boat cruise on the Chobe River being the exception.
We were back in camp by 9.30am and had brunch about 10.00am. The tents and gear were packed by 11.45am and we departed on the two-hour mokoro ride back to the mokoro station. The weather was very hot with the sun beating down. I covered myself with a jacket and was able to shuffle down into the canoe for a nap. Once at the mokoro camp all of the gear was unloaded and we had to wait until 2.00pm for the motorboats to arrive. The motorboats transferred us back to Guma Lagoon Camp for our last night in Botswana.
Although off the island, we were still living with the limited amount of gear that we had brought with us from the truck. But we were in a camp with a bar and showers! We had a delicious barbecue meal for dinner but I was struggling with a stomach illness that commenced on the island - thank goodness we now had a toilet that was more than a hole in the ground!
Tuesday 18th August
We were up at 6.15am to pack the tents away for an 8.00am breakfast. We left camp about 9.00am and headed out on the bumpy ride to Etsha 13 village to be reunited with the truck where all of the gear was transferred from the local truck.
We headed towards Namibia and stopped along the way for a roadside lunch before reaching the border crossing. The crossing was very orderly with only officials being present (no hordes of money changers or people selling items as seen at the Zambia/Botswana border).
After crossing the border we took a wrong turn that fortunately took us into Caprivi Game Park. We were able to view Sable antelope, impala and hippos before getting back on track to our destination for the night - Ngepi Camp on the banks of the Kavango River, near Bagani on the edge of the Caprivi Game Park. The journey of 148km from Etsha 13 to Ngepi took 4.5 hours.
A few of our group expressed an interest in upgrading to a bush-hut or tree-house at Ngepi Camp but only one tree-house was available. The others balked at the $50US upgrade fee but I gladly took the upgrade. I was definitely ready for a private room with my own bathroom, a comfortable bed and a power-point for charging batteries. Ngepi Camp was an interesting venue with quirky themes for the bathroom facilities and a swimming cage in the river that protected bathers from hippos and crocs! The tree-house that I occupied was close to the river and was very comfortable - certainly worth the cost of the upgrade. I enjoyed laying in the hammock watching the river and reading a book. The camp generator starts up at 6.00pm so I was able to power up my laptop, upload photos and GPS tracks, and charge batteries. The generator only runs until about midnight - or when the bar closes. After a few days with a stomach bug, a night in the tree-house certainly raised my spirits and was a pick-me-up for the coming days.
Wednesday 19th August
I had to be up at 4.15am and out of my tree-house for a 5.00am departure. I would have liked to have stayed longer but we were heading to Etosha National Park and the promise of lots of game viewing!
We stopped en-route for a roadside breakfast and then stopped for an hour and a half at the town of Grootfontein. This allowed us to change money into Namibian dollars, visit an Internet cafe and buy some cooked food from the local supermarket for lunch.
We arrived at the Etosha National Park about 2.00pm and did a short game drive before reaching our camp site (a total of 644km). This is the game viewing I had been waiting for! We were soon spotting game every hundred yards or so, spotting zebra, kudu, black-faced impala, giraffe, springbok and wildebeest. A great start to our visit to Etosha.
We then headed to the Namutoni Camp where we pitched the tents. Upgrades to chalet rooms were available but cost $250US per night as they included three meals per day. We then had the opportunity swim in the camp pool, visit the camp water-hole for more game viewing, or use the power supply to charge batteries and upload photos. An optional night game drive was available for $100US but none of our group took the option.
After dinner I visited the camp's floodlit water-hole but the only animals present were a couple of jackals. I went to bed at 9.00pm but could hear the noises of jackals rummaging through items in the camp-site. We had been warned not to leave shoes or other items outside the tents as the jackals will run off with them!
Thursday 20th August
Up at 5.30am for a 6.15am game drive. Again, we were soon viewing game including giraffe, impala, springbok, wildebeest and jackals.We then came across a couple of male lions laying quite close to the road that provided a great photo opportunity. We returned to camp about 9.30am in time for a 10.00am brunch.
After brunch we had some free time so I visited the camp's jewellery shop (some nice stuff) and then headed to the water-hole to update my journal whilst watching for game. Game viewing at the waterhole was good with visiting groups of zebra, wildebeest, springbok and gemsbok.
We headed out on another game drive about 3,30pm with lots more game being seen. Amongst the sightings were giraffe drinking at a waterhole, some dik-dik and steenbok and some ostriches. The camp gates are closed at 5.45pm so we headed back and made it by 5.35pm. I uploaded more photos to my laptop, ate dinner and was in bed by about 8.15pm.
Friday 21st August
Up at 5.00am, pack up the tents and depart Namutoni Camp at 6.15am. We did a game drive through Etosha National Park en-route to our next camp-site. We saw the usual array of wildlife but also saw a pair of female lions at a water-hole. We also saw some hartebeest and another ostrich.
We arrived at Halali camp site about 10.45am and visited the tourist shop whilst registration was taking place. No upgrades were available as all cabins were full. We had the tents set up by 11.30am so we headed to the camp's water-hole until lunch-time. Whilst we were there, the water-hole was visited by impala, springbok, hartebeest, zebra and a group of kudu (a very impressive male Kudu with a group of females).
We took another game drive at 3.00pm although half of the group opted to stay in camp. Game was relatively sparse on this drive but we observed impala, springbok, hartebeest, giraffe, zebra, steenbok, ostrich and a single hyena. We also drove out onto the Etosha salt pan to take a few photos.
We got back to camp about 5.40pm and headed straight to the water-hole as we'd heard that a rhino makes a daily appearance around 6.00pm. On arrival at 5.50pm there were already a rhino at the water-hole and three more arrived about 6.00pm. Unfortunately, the lighting wasn't good enough for decent photographs.
We headed back to camp at 6.45pm for dinner and then back to the water-hole at 8.00pm. We had been told that a leopard has been seen there after 8.00pm some nights. On arrival at the flood-lit water-hole there were three lions drinking. After the lions left there were several groups of rhinos and a group of ten hyenas (I figured something was going to get killed tonight)! The night-time game viewing was excellent but it was unfortunate that many of the spectators constantly made a noise or used flash photography. Despite three rhinos still being at the water-hole, I left about 8.45pm to get some sleep as we had another early departure the next morning.
Saturday 22nd August
Up at 5.40am to take down the tents and depart camp at 6.15am. We did a game drive en-route to our next destination. Whilst game viewing was sparse compared to other drives, we did get to see a pair of ostrich with the female chasing away other game from a water-hole. We made a brief stop at another camp for some souvenir shopping before exiting Etosha National Park.
En-route, we stopped at the small town of Outjo for a 1.5 hour lunch break. This town had some good souvenir shops, including several that sold springbok hides, warthog tusks, etc. Apparently the area has an active game hunting trade and the animal products are the by-product of that hunting. Following our lunch break we continued on to our final destination, the Camp Otjitotongwe Cheetah Guestfarm. Total driving distance for the day was 333km.
Upon arrival at the cheetah farm we were allowed into an enclosure where we were able to interact with some 'pet' cheetahs - two adults and a 4-month old cub. We were able to pet the cheetahs and take some photos. We then headed to the camping area to set up our tents.
After setting up the tents, we went to the camp-site bar to await the start of a cheetah drive. The Camp Otjitotongwe Cheetah Guestfarm presents something of a contradiction. Whilst positioning itself as a cheetah conservation facility, its bar is decorated with elephant ears and trunk as well as a novelty brandy dispenser made from the rear end of a warthog. The display of animal parts seems to be at odds with the conservation theme. At 4.40pm we were collected and had to stand in the rear of some open-top jeeps to be driven to the main enclosure where the 'semi-wild' cheetahs live. We were driven around the large enclosure in the jeeps and, before long, we began to see cheetahs that obviously knew they were about to be fed. When the jeeps were stopped, the cheetahs gathered and large chunks of donkey meat were thrown out to them. As each cheetah grabbed a piece of meat, it ran off into the bush to eat. We were able to get close-up photographs of cheetahs but it lacked the excitement of spotting them in the wild. The experience felt very commercialised.
We were back in camp by 5.45pm and had dinner at 7.00pm. The camp site was very basic with only one toilet/shower for men and one for women. There was also no electricity. Dinner was stir-fried kudu meat - very delicious! After dinner, one of the group hooked up his laptop to the truck's speakers and we watched a comedy show for some entertainment.
Sunday 23rd August
We got a bit of a lay-in this morning as we didn't have to get up until 6.20am! After an 8.00am breakfast we departed camp at 9.00am. As we were leaving the camp-site we saw a tame two-year old giraffe at the camp owner's home so we stopped briefly to take photos and to pet it. We then headed out to our next destination.
About 1.30pm, we arrived at the Kisenje Village Rest Stop near to Opuwo (driving distance 295km). This rest stop is managed by the local people in the village so staying there helps to support the local community. We set up the tents but were only in camp for a short time. At 2.50pm we set off again to pick up our Himba contact called Queen Elizabeth. Once Queen had been collected, we headed to the Himba village for a pre-arranged visit. The tour leaders had purchased an assortment of items for the chief (including food) and we also took along a large quantity of fresh water for the Himba. We were told that they usually have to walk 30km to a place where they dig for water. They then have to wait up to four hours for the water to appear and collect it after which they walk back 30km carrying the muddy water. I'm sure that the many gallons of clean fresh water that we brought would be very welcome.
Upon our arrival at the Himba village, we discovered that the chief was out tending to his cattle so would not be available to welcome us. Instead, we were officially welcomed by one of his wives. The gift items were handed over and then all of the women and the girls from the village came out to pose for photographs and to sing and dance. We were then given a tour of the village and were welcomed into the chief's hut where one of his wives demonstrated some of the items therein. We were told that water is too precious to the Himba to be used for bathing, so they never wash with water. Instead, they cover themselves with a mixture of cow fat and ochre. The chief's wife showed us how this is done. When the women are expecting male company, they burn wood from the perfume tree and position the burning ember so that the smoke wafts over their body. This was also demonstrated - including sitting over the smoking embers! We were told that the girls are usually married and pregnant by 14 years of age. None of the Himba go to school. The Namibian Government is now providing financial support to help the Himba maintain their traditional way of life, recognising their cultural importance to Namibia. Following the tour, the women brought out their crafts to sell and then it was time to leave.
We returned to the camp site for dinner, a shower and a change of clothes. By 9.00pm I was in bed.
Monday 24th August
We were up at 5.30am to take down the tents. Everything had to be packed into plastic bags in preparation for the dust we would soon encounter driving south through Namibia. I had taken a box of jumbo size zip-lock bags that came in very handy for sealing items of clothing inside the luggage. A plastic trash bag was then placed over the outside of the luggage in an attempt to keep the dust at bay. Even though the luggage would be stowed in lockers on the side of the truck, the dust gets inside the lockers. After a 6.30am breakfast we departed camp at 7.00am.
It was a long, bumpy and dusty ride as the roads were all loose gravel over mountainous terrain. We had to keep the truck windows closed for the first few hours due to the clouds of dust being kicked up by the truck. After a few hours though, it was too hot to keep the windows closed so we had to crack them open, even though that meant dust came inside the truck. We stopped at the roadside about 11.45am for a brief lunch before continuing on the journey.
We arrived at the Camp Xaragu camp-site about 3.00pm, having made good time over a distance of 323km. There were three 'tented chalets' available as upgrades at a cost of $90US for a double or $80US for a single. They were basically large tents on a solid base with a personal shower and beds. I may have been tempted if they had a power supply but they didn't - so I stuck with the tent.
Some water and a beer in the bar were very welcome after a long dusty drive. Unfortunately, the experience was soured by an exchange that I witnessed between the elderly white female owner of the facility and a black female staff member. The interaction was rude and domineering and I instantly thought of apartheid-era South Africa. I would not stay at this camp-site again based on my observation!
The camp site had no electricity and, by morning, there was no water in the entire camp (apparently caused by a constantly running toilet).
Tuesday 25th August
Up at 5.30am and the tent was packed away by 6.00am. We departed Camp Xaragu about 7.00am and headed to our next destination. There was less dust on the road than yesterday but it seemed hotter!
We stopped after about a half-hour to visit the rock carvings at Twyfelfontein. We had a guided tour of the 4,000 year old rock carvings and then hit the road again towards the next camp-site.
We arrived at Brandberg White Lady Lodge about 12.30pm (driving distance 179km). The lodge is close to Brandberg Mountain, the highest peak in Namibia and I opted to take an upgrade to a chalet with views of the mountain. The little stone chalets have solar panels to power lights and ceiling fans but there are no power outlets for charging batteries. Management will, however, charge batteries for you at the administration office. The cost of the upgrade was about $70 US.
The temperature at the camp-site was 96.6F at lunch time. Inside the chalet felt cooler but the temperature was still 88 degrees F. After lunch I headed to my chalet to relax with a couple of cold beers whilst I updated my journal and read a book. There was an organised group activity to hike up the mountain to the San bushman painting 'The White Lady'. I had no interest in a 2-3 hour hike up a mountain in 96 degree heat so I relaxed in the chalet. After hearing the reviews by those who made the trip, I was glad I stayed behind.
After dinner at the camp-site we were entertained by a group of young local people who sang and danced for us. It was quite a raw production but enjoyable nonetheless. At the completion of the performance we tipped the youngsters and they headed off to another camp-site to repeat their act. I then retreated to my chalet for a nice warm shower and a good night's sleep on a comfortable bed.
Wednesday 26th August
There was an optional 6.00am drive for those wishing to get sunrise photographs featuring nearby rock formations. I opted to 'sleep-in', getting up at 6.00am for a leisurely morning and a 7.00am breakfast (no tent to pack up). We departed camp at 8.00am, heading for Swakopmund.
We stopped en-route at the Cape Cross Nature Reserve on the western coast where we saw a colony of fur seals. We had a picnic lunch within the park (but away from the smell of the seals) and then continued the journey to Swakopmund where we would stay for three nights. The daily driving distance was 339km.
Upon arrival in Swakopmund, the first stop was at Outback Orange to book activities during our stay. A whole range of activities are available, including parachute jumping and hot-air ballooning but I opted for quad-bike riding in the desert for the following day. We then headed to the Municipal Bungalows site at the southern end of Swakopmund where the group was assigned bungalows for the three-night stay. Rob and I had a two-bedroom bungalow to ourselves which was great (couples were doubled up - four persons to a two-room bungalow). The bungalows had their own power supply, bathroom and kitchen but no Internet access.
About 6.45pm we set out for a walk to the Lighthouse Restaurant for a group dinner. I had a full camembert cheese for appetiser, an Oryx Carpetbagger steak dinner and two huge (litre) beers that only cost $23US, including the tip. Dining out in Swakopmund was tasty and inexpensive!
We walked back to the bungalows, along the coastline, in cool conditions with the wind blowing off the sea. I was already enjoying Swakopmund and it was soon to become one of my favourite places of the trip! We were back at the bungalows and in bed by 11.00pm (quite late compared to the rest of the trip).
Thursday 27th August
I tried to sleep late but got up at 7.15am. After doing laundry by hand on the trip, it was nice to have a laundry adjacent to the bungalows. I took a bag of laundry and dropped it off at 8.00am and was told it would be ready that afternoon.
We walked into town and changed some currency at a local bank. We then went to the Village Cafe for breakfast where I had the Terminator 1 breakfast with a huge glass of orange juice. The Village Cafe is highly recommended and the Terminator breakfast is a real challenge! It set me up for the day to come.
We walked to the local craft market on the street neat to the Lighthouse Restaurant. There are lots of craftsmen with their various goods displayed for sale but it seemed like we were the only tourists there at that time. After some hard negotiating, I bought a long Kuba cloth for the equivalent of $35US. I then negotiated a straight trade for a second Kuba cloth, in exchange for a waist bag that I had with me. I was also able to purchase some nice agate stone bracelets from another craftsman. We then went to an Internet cafe to check and send e-mails.
At 2.30pm we headed off for our quad-bike activity. There were two bike options - a 200cc Yamaha with manual gear change or a 125cc Yamaha Grizzly with automatic gear change. I opted for the 200cc manual bike but the rest of the group took the 125cc automatics. Riding the quads proved to be quite different to riding motorcycles, particularly getting used to the thumb-trigger throttle and the different feel to steering. It was a little awkward at first but, once I got used to it, a lot of fun. We were taken out to the sand dunes where we followed a guide up and around the various dunes. The 200cc bikes definitely had more grunt than the 125cc models and could power up the dunes easier. By the end of the ride the mist had rolled in from the sea and it was quite chilly. I had so much fun on the quad bikes that I decided to do the Rhino 4x4 buggies the next day.
After the bikes, I picked up my laundry. The rate for the laundry was 20 Namibian dollars per kilo, so my big bag of laundry only cost about $8US (washed, ironed and folded).
That evening, Rob and I headed back into town for dinner. After looking at a few restaurants we opted for the Ombo Restaurant that specializes in ostrich meat. I had Ostrich Ravioli as an appetiser (pasta a bit too thick and undercooked) and then an ostrich steak with mushrooms for the entree that was delicious. With a couple of draft beers and a tip, the total cost was about $35US per person.
Friday 28th August
We were up at 6.30am and left the bungalows by 7.15am for another big breakfast at the Village Cafe. After breakfast we walked to the Outback Orange office and took advantage of their free Internet service whilst waiting for the start of the Rhino 4x4 activity. The Rhino buggy activity costs 750 Namibian dollars for two persons (about $50US each) which was great value as we were out in the dunes for about 2.5 to 3 hours.
The guided buggy tour covered much of the same ground as the quad bikes and involved driving them up and down the sides of large dunes - lots of fun. We also had the added bonus of some sand boarding down the dunes. I did two slides down the dunes but for each slide you have to walk all the way back to the top - so two were enough!
After the buggy activity we wandered around town and had lunch at the Swakopmund Brauhaus. The Game Goulash with Oryx was excellent. After some shopping and a visit to the Internet cafe we headed back to the bungalows and relaxed with a couple of beers, chatting with other group members.
In the evening we headed into town to play a few games of pool and drink a few beers. We had a late dinner at a sushi restaurant and headed back to the bungalows.
This was our last night in Swakopmund and I was sorry to be leaving. The town is a fusion of African and German culture. The long ocean promenade and evening misty weather reminded me of English seaside towns (without the gaudiness) whilst the pastel coloured houses were similar to Bermuda homes. The weather is cool but pleasant. English is widely spoken and service is excellent. The cost of living is very reasonable. I could see myself retiring here were it not for the fact that the nearest larger town is 1,000 miles away across the desert. I really enjoyed Swakopmund and would certainly return for another visit.
Saturday 29th August
Up at 6.30am to load our stuff into the truck ready for a 7.00am breakfast with the tour group and an 8.00am departure. Whilst we departed the bungalows, our departure from Swakopmund was delayed until 9.15am as the tour leader had to change some currency at the bank.
We stopped a couple of times along the route for photographs and lunch. One of those stops was as we crossed the Tropic of Capricorn so that we could take photos next to the sign. We didn't arrive at our next camp-site at Sesriem until 5.00pm and then had to set up the tents. The drive took a total of 8 hours and 48 minutes and covered 352 km.
Upgrades were available at this site but they cost over $300US (although that did include three meals per day). There are no power points at the actual camp-site but there are several inside the bar/restaurant area that we could use. There is also no Internet service.
By the time we finished dinner is was 8.30pm. Knowing that we were departing for a walk at 5.00am, it was into the tents for an early night.
Sunday 30th August
Up at 4.30am for a 5.00am departure so that we could catch the sunrise from Dune 45. We drove in the truck to the base of Dune 45. Several tourists had already begun the climb but Lloyd and Rebecca from our group set off at a fast pace and the challenge was on! It was a tough climb up the side of the dune through soft sand and, before long, my lungs were hurting more than my legs! Nevertheless, we passed all of the other tourists and I reached the summit second - just behind Lloyd - with the cool air stinging my throat. Others joined us at the top whilst half of our group didn't climb higher than the mid-way point. It was quite a workout but we had a great vantage point for some sunrise photos. After the sunrise we had to get back down but that proved much easier.
We had breakfast at the foot of the dune and then got into the back of a pick-up truck for a drive to Soussusvlei ('the place where the river ends'). Our local tour guide (Frans) was simply amazing. His knowledge of the area and how to survive in the desert was outstanding whilst his delivery was personable and entertaining. We walked from the current Soussusvlei to the former soussusvlei (now called Dead Vlei), where a stand of Acacia trees died between 600-900 years ago when the water could no longer get into the vlei due to two dunes meeting and forming a barrier.
We returned to the camp about 11.30am and had some free time before the 1.00pm lunch - an opportunity for a few beers and to upload photos and GPS logs to the laptop.
In the afternoon we headed to a small canyon not far from camp to get some sunset photos, then returned to camp for dinner (roast pork with apple sauce, potatoes, stuffed pumpkin and spinach). Went to bed about 9.00pm.
Monday 31st August
We were up at 5.15am to pack up the tents for a 6.00am breakfast. We departed camp at 7.00am for a long drive to Fish River Canyon.
Jonathan and Stella had decided to leave the tour early and head directly to Cape Town. The only way this could be accomplished was to drop them off at a road junction about 45km from the town where they would catch a pre-arranged bus. We had some concern about leaving them on the roadside in very hot temperatures but they were very lucky - as they were unloading their gear from the truck a lady in a car offered to give them a ride into the town.
We arrived at the Hobas Camp about 4.20pm - a drive of 502km that took us 10.5 hours. We set up the tents and within 20 minutes we were back on the truck heading for Fish River Canyon. We had about 50 minutes at the Canyon before the sun went down, and the sunset was not very impressive. We returned to camp about 6.15pm and awaited dinner.
The water ran out in the camp-site so we wouldn't be able to get showers, etc. The power would also be turned off at 9.00pm, so I went to bed at 8.30pm!
Tuesday 1st September
We were awakened early by a group of kids from the Walvis Bay High School who were camping in an adjacent spot and were making a lot of noise. Got out of bed at 5.45am and packed away for a 7.00am breakfast and an 8.00am departure.
The drive of 214km took about 3 hours 50 minutes to get us to our next destination, the Felix Unite Camp on the bank of the Orange River. The Orange River forms the border between Namibia and South Africa, so this was to be our last night in Namibia. We had lunch about 12.30pm and departed camp on a pick-up truck for a canoe ride on the river. We were driven upstream to a starting point and would canoe downstream back to the camp-site.
We all paired up so that there were two persons per canoe and were given instructions before launching onto the river. We travelled as a loose group downstream with some heavy paddling interspersed with a slower pace. Part way through the journey we pulled into the side of the river and secured the canoes so that we could have a swim. We were assured that hippos and crocs were not in this part of the river due to the rapids (there were three small rapids that we had to contend with on the route). The canoeing was very enjoyable and we were soon pulling up at the camp-site.
After a shower, some of us went to the bar for a few beers and a few games of pool until dinner was ready. There was more beer-drinking and pool-playing after dinner. I was awakened during the night by the sound of something rummaging through the trash, knocking over bottles. Thinking it was jackals, I got out of the tent to chase them away, only to find that the culprit was the Rottweiler dog that belonged to the camp owner. I chased the dog away and went back to bed.
Wednesday 2nd September
We were up early again to pack away the tents for a 6.00am breakfast and a 7.00am departure. We headed south into South Africa and stopped for lunch at the Goegab Nature Reserve that is known for its blooming wildflowers (between August and September). Following a light lunch of cheese and crackers we continued south to the area of Citrusdal. We stopped at the Gekko Backpackers hostel, about 20km before the town of Citrusdal and near the Cederberg Wilderness Area. The day's drive covered a distance of 532km and took a total of 11 hours 10 minutes.
There were a few upgrades available in the hostel for 40 Rand each (about $6) so all available spaces were snatched up. I stayed in the tent on the grass outside the hostel. The Gekko Backpackers hostel was a nice casual place with an honour bar and a pool table so we managed to drink a few beers before turning in for the night.
Thursday 3rd September
We left Gekko Backpackers in the morning and headed towards the town of Stellenbosch. After a drive of 3.5 hours (and about 200km), we arrived at our intended destination, the Mountain Breeze camp-site. It was pouring with rain (the first rain we'd seen on the trip) and everyone was agreed that we didn't want to camp in muddy conditions on our last night before arriving at Cape Town. The camp-site didn't have any upgrades available so several phone calls were made to find alternate accommodation. After a while, we doubled back to the town of Stellenbosch to stay in a backpackers hostel. Some of the couples were allocated double rooms, some got four to a room whilst the rest of us were allocated to a room with 10 beds. It was dry, had power, real beds, a shower and was in the town. We were very happy!
After getting settled in and changed, we all went out for a final night group dinner at a nearby restaurant. After dinner, there was a blues band playing live music at a bar across the street so several of us stood and listened for a while and had a couple of beers. We returned to the hostel about 11.30pm and went to bed.
Friday 4th September
We were up about 7.30am to pack our bags and go for breakfast. We checked out of the hostel about 9.40am and headed to the truck for a 10.00am departure.
Cape Town was only a short distance away but heavy traffic slowed our progress. The 83km drive took us 2 hours 50 minutes. As we were dropped off in Cape Town, it marked the end of the Africa in Focus tour but I had opted to have a little extra time in Cape Town following the tour.
I checked in to the Bellevue Manor Guest House in the Sea Point area. I went shopping in the Sea Point area and managed to find a cheap bag that I could use to hold the Shona sculptures in protective foam that I had brought all the way from Zimbabwe. I then went into the centre of Cape Town to browse around the Waterfront area. Following dinner and some draft beer at Mitchell's Pub and Restaurant I caught a taxi back to the guest house.
Saturday 5th September
The last stragglers from the Africa in Focus tour had all moved on by today so I was on my own. I was picked up at the guest house at 8.1am for an organised tour of Cape Town's townships that proved to be very interesting. I was dropped off at the Waterfront for lunch and then caught the 3.00pm ferry to Robben Island for a tour. The tour was an interesting and moving experience and reaffirmed my admiration for former President Nelson Mandela. The ferry got me back to the Waterfront by 6.30pm and I caught a taxi back to the guest house.
After checking e-mails I walked to a nearby Italian restaurant for my last evening in Africa.
Sunday 6th September
I slept late (no more 5.00am starts) and had a leisurely breakfast at the guest house, looking up at Table Mountain. This was to be a leisurely day, waiting for departure time. After hanging out in my room for a few hours, I took a walk around Sea Point and stopped for lunch at La Perla Restaurant. I had fish soup followed by lamb ravioli and a couple of glasses of merlot - it was my farewell meal to Africa. I finished up with traditional African Malva Pudding.
After lunch I walked along the sea front then returned to the guest house for a nap and waited for departure time. At 5.15pm I was driven to the airport by Gary DeCastro, the owner of Bellevue Manor Guest House and a very gracious host. My luggage was checked in (with four 'fragile' labels attached to the bag containing the sculptures) and I headed to the airport gift shops to spend my remaining Rand.
Fortunately, the flights back were a little shorter than the outward leg. I was still travelling for over 30 hours before I arrived safely back in Bermuda on Monday 7th September.
REVIEW OF TRIP
All of the flights were with British Airways. The flights themselves were fine and I like British Airways but the combination of flights resulted in very long travel times. If I were to repeat the journey I would either break up the flights with layovers in London or I would upgrade to Club class with the bed-type seats that would allow me to get a decent sleep on the plane.
The Southern Cross Route
The Southern Cross route, as operated by Africa in Focus, provided a good opportunity to visit four countries (five with the optional visit to Zimbabwe) within a four-week period for a reasonable cost. Of course, the trade-off is cheaper accommodation (tents), group travel in an overlander truck, and helping out with various chores around camp.
If you are not prepared for an element of 'roughing it' then this type of overlander trip is probably not for you. The assigned chores include food preparation, washing the dishes and cleaning out the truck. These are not onerous jobs but we were always happy when our day off came around in the cycle.
Being in close proximity with a large group of strangers for four weeks can also have an impact. Whilst everyone seemed to get on well for the first couple of weeks, personalities began to grate on each other by the second half.
As noted in the day-to-day review, one couple decided to abandon the tour before the end. It turned out not to be what they expected and they preferred to opt out of the last couple of days.
Whilst most of the itinerary was enjoyable, there were some parts that I enjoyed more, or less, than others. The highlights for me were Etosha National Park (game viewing), the Himba visit and Swakopmund. Whilst I enjoyed the visit to the Okavango Delta, I thought the visit to the remote island was not worth the effort involved to get there. I enjoyed visiting the various countries and found each of them to be enjoyable.
As noted above, the Southern Cross route requires a lot of driving to cover the ground that it does. As a result, some days are essentially travel days spent covering a lot of miles in a bumpy, and sometimes dusty, truck. Anyone booking this tour needs to take that into account.
Access to warm showers isn't always possible and, often, there is no electricity supply. Packing away tents in the morning usually results in dirt being transferred from the dew-covered tent to you clothes and hands. Participants therefore need to be willing to get dirty!
Understanding the above issues before booking will go a long way to ensuring that you ar prepared for the down-sides of an overlander trip. On the positive side, you'll visit lots of cool places, have the opportunity to take some great photographs, and come away with some wonderful memories.
Africa in Focus as a Tour Group
When selecting a tour group, I opted for Africa in Focus for a number of reasons. I liked the detail provided by their website and the truck seemed to offer more space than the competitors. It is also a small family-run business that I thought would result in a personalised service.
The Africa in Focus truck certainly appeared to be as good as, or better, than the trucks used by other overlander tour operators that we encountered along the route. The seating area was more than adequate with plenty of leg room. The external storage lockers were sufficient for two persons provided luggage was kept light.
The tour is accompanied by a tour leader, a driver and a cook. Our cook was excellent and we ate well throughout the trip. Our driver was experienced and was a great source of information througout the trip. Unfortunately, our Tour Leader had only just joined Africa in Focus and this was his first tour. As a result, he occasionally provided erroneous information on the various destinations. I imagine this minor problem will ease as he completes more tours. All of the staff members were friendly and did their best to make the trip enjoyable.
Africa in Focus advertises access to their laptop computer for uploading digital photographs but, with 16 people on the tour, demand for the laptop was quite high. There were also periods when the laptop was not working efficiently. Fortunately, some of us had taken our own laptops, or the demand would have been chronic.
Similarly, the tour group advertises charging facilities on the truck but these are limited and only work when the truck is in motion. As a result, there was a high demand for electrical power points at every camp-site. Power adaptor/transformers were worth their weight in gold.
Unfortunately, the following problem soured my opinion of Africa in Focus.
Problem Getting Refund from Africa in Focus
When I first booked this trip it was for me and my daughter and was booked about 8 months in advance. My daughter subsequently discovered that she was pregnant and was scheduled to give birth in August. This meant that she would be unable to travel on medical grounds.
I informed Africa in Focus that my daughter would not be able to travel on medical grounds and was told that I would get a full refund of the deposit provided I supplied a letter from my daughter's doctor confirming that she would be unable to travel for the tour. A copy of the doctor's letter was sent.
Despite the offer of a refund, I attempted to find someone else to accompany me on the trip. Before the cancellation deadline, AIF contacted me and told me that there was a long waiting list for places on the trip and that an earlier cancellation would assist them. I therefore agreed to cancel my daughter's spot on the trip so that one of the people on the waiting list could fill it.
After completing the tour and returning home I had still not received the promised refund. Upon contacting AIF I was told that I would no longer be getting the refund because AIF did not consider being pregnant with an imminent delivery time to be 'medical grounds'. AIF also told me that they had to heavily discount my daughter's place in order to sell it. This contradicted the previous report of a waiting list for the place. It was also not supported by a conversation that I had with the person who filled the spot!
After I objected and pointed out the written commitment to provide the refund, AIF agreed to refund 50% of the (200 pound sterling) deposit but would not fully refund it. As a result, I was denied a promised refund of 100 UK pounds.
The financial loss is not my main concern. Of much greater concern is the dishonesty and lack of integrity that were displayed by reneging on a written agreement to refund the full deposit.
I expect to be able to trust my travel company to be honest with me and to demonstrate integrity. As a result of the conduct of the owner of Africa in Focus, I will never use the company again! Anyone booking with Africa in Focus should exercise caution in this regard as a written undertaking to refund clearly means nothing to the owner! He was willing to create a dissatisfied customer over a sum of only 100 pounds.
My first recommendation is to book with a company other than Africa in Focus based on the conduct of Jeremy, the owner.
If, however, you decide to participate in the Southern Cross, or another Africa in Focus tour, I have the following recommendations.
Take your own (lightweight) laptop with you or take extra memory cards so that you don't have to upload photos until you return home.
Take a back-up camera. Several cameras malfunctioned on the trip leaving some participants without a camera to record their trip.
Take power converters that will work in each of the countries - you don't want to be relying on others to loan you a converter.
Take a Thermarest for use under the provided foam mattress. They definitely improve the comfort level.
Take your own mosquito net as the tent zippers don't meet completely, allowing bugs inside the tent. I hung my personal net inside the tent and slept comfortably knowing that I was safe from mosquito bites.
Take an i-pod with you on the trip. Having your own music to listen to helps to pass the long hours of driving in the truck.
If you have an SLR or digital SLR camera, I recommend a 400mm zoom lens. Mine made a significant improvement on the shots I was able to capture.
Take a box of jumbo-size ziplock bags to help dust-proof your clothing inside your luggage.
Book hotel accommodation either side of the organised tour, particularly after the completion of the tour. This provides a buffer for any flight delays at the beginning of the trip and avoids having to go directly to the airport on completion of the tour (the tour does not include any time in Cape Town, so take the opportunity to spend a couple of days there). I recommend the Bellevue Manor Guest House for any stays in Cape Town.
The following links will take you to the websites of places mentioned above.