Land of di­ver­sity

The African coun­try of Namibia is where the ze­bras and rhi­nos roam, dol­phins leap and the desert lies right next to the At­lantic ocean.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Front Page - By ER­ROL OH star2­[email protected]­

NOR­MALLY cool and laid-back, Sa­muel Nang­wena was vis­i­bly thrilled. But our guide had to dial back his ex­cite­ment. It was rather late, al­most 10pm. Our group was fi­nally about to rest in our chalets at Okaukuejo Re­sort in the mid­dle of Namibia’s Etosha Na­tional Park.

We were bone-tired af­ter be­ing on the move for more than half a day, cov­er­ing 600km of tarred, gravel and coastal salt roads in 4x4 ve­hi­cles. But what Nang­wena told us was the sort of thing that made sleep un­im­por­tant.

“Good news! There are four rhi­nos at the wa­ter­hole,” he an­nounced in a half-whis­per.

He was re­fer­ring to the re­sort’s cen­tre­piece – a shal­low pool just be­yond the belly-high stone wall at the back of the prop­erty.

It at­tracts a steady traf­fic of thirsty an­i­mals round the clock, but is es­pe­cially en­chant­ing be­tween sun­set and sun­rise, when flood­lights bathe the spot in a soft yel­low glow.

That Oc­to­ber night, it took a while for the mind to process our first sight of the Okaukuejo wa­ter­hole. It was as if cur­tains had parted to re­veal the se­cret lives of African beasts.

There were in­deed sev­eral rhi­nos there. This alone would have been amaz­ing enough, but there was more.

A herd of maybe 20 ele­phants young and old had also lum­bered in. We were in­formed that ele­phants are not gra­cious so­cial drinkers, that they do not like shar­ing space at wa­ter­holes. The rhi­nos kept their dis­tance; they must have got­ten the memo.

Seem­ingly obliv­i­ous to the hushed and awestruck au­di­ence on the other side of the wall, the ele­phants went about their busi­ness un­hur­riedly, giv­ing us plenty of time to ob­serve.

It was like gaz­ing with long­ing eyes at the neigh­bours frol­ick­ing in their swim­ming pool, ex­cept in this case, no­body would call you the “creep next door”.

Within our first hour or so at Etosha, we al­ready had this unique and un­for­get­table ex­pe­ri­ence.

And in the next two days, we would wit­ness a lioness killing a spring­bok fawn and chance upon a usu­ally elu­sive leop­ard tak­ing a mid­day stroll.

We would set foot in a salt pan so vast and shim­mer­ing that it shows up in pho­to­graphs taken from space. The Etosha Pan – Etosha means “great white place” – is the ghost of a lake whose water evap­o­rated many cen­turies ago, leav­ing a crust of min­eral de­posits.

Of course, we had nu­mer­ous other an­i­mal en­coun­ters dur­ing our game drives in the park. With the knowl­edge­able and lively Me-Gusto Busch, our other guide, lead­ing the way as our cars hopped from wa­ter­hole to wa­ter­hole, we saw per­haps 20 species of mam­mals and birds roam­ing freely.

We had our fill of ze­bras, gi­raffes, li­ons, os­triches, ele­phants, rhi­nos, jack­als, var­i­ous types of an­telopes, kori bus­tards (among the world’s largest fly­ing birds) and sec­re­tary birds.

It helped that it was the dry sea­son; an­i­mals were at wa­ter­holes more of­ten and the grass was shorter, mak­ing it eas­ier to spot them.

Land of con­trasts

Sev­eral of us in the group, in­clud­ing me, had been on sa­faris else­where in Africa, but Etosha sel­dom felt like more of the same.

This was the theme through­out the 10-day fa­mil­iari­sa­tion trip for Malaysian jour­nal­ists and tour com­pany ex­ec­u­tives – Namibia kept beat­ing ex­pec­ta­tions.

And yet, de­spite its abun­dant wildlife, stark yet dra­matic land­scapes, easy­go­ing peo­ple, and breath­tak­ing geo­graph­i­cal and cul­tural di­ver­sity, the south-west African na­tion is not get­ting due at­ten­tion in this part of the world.

De­ter­mined to change this, Anne Na­makau Mutelo, the Namib­ian High Com­mis­sioner to Malaysia, worked for over a year to or­gan­ise a visit that will hope­fully lead to more Malaysians se­ri­ously con­sid­er­ing Namibia as a hol­i­day desti­na­tion.

She en­listed spon­sors such as the Namibia Tourism Board; Air Namibia, whose do­mes­tic flight from the far north to the cen­tral Namib­ian cap­i­tal of Wind­hoek spared us many more long hours on the road; and Namibia Wildlife Re­sorts, which runs Okaukuejo Re­sort and Popa Falls Re­sort in Divundu, an­other place where we put up for the night.

Ethiopian Air­lines was on board as well, fly­ing us be­tween Kuala Lumpur and Wind­hoek via Sin­ga­pore and Ad­dis Ababa, the car­rier’s home hub.

It was a way for the air­line to show­case how it con­nects Malaysia with Africa through a 12-hour KL-Ad­dis Ababa ser­vice five days a week, us­ing the twin-aisle Boe­ing 787-8 Dream­liner air­craft.

Mutelo was ea­ger for us vis­i­tors to have a taste of what makes her pas­sion­ate about Namibia.

Un­der­stand­ably, our itin­er­ary in­cluded go­ing to the north­ern town of Ka­tima Mulilo, which she calls “my kam­pung”. Home­town pride may have been one rea­son our trip was en­tirely in the coun­try’s top half.

It was also be­cause Namibia is nearly twoand-a-half times the size of Malaysia.

It would have been overly am­bi­tious to cram our itin­er­ary with south­ern at­trac­tions such as Sos­susvlei, fa­mous for its tow­er­ing sand dunes, and Fish River Canyon, Africa’s deep­est canyon that’s hugely pop­u­lar for hik­ing.

Not that we had any­thing to com­plain about. The travel plan drawn up for us was al­ready a busy one.

Soon af­ter ar­riv­ing in Wind­hoek, we were off to Swakop­mund, a sea­side town where we stayed for two nights. And then it was an­other two nights at Etosha, fol­lowed by a series of overnight stops at Rundu, Divundu, Ka­tima Mulilo, Wind­hoek and Otji­warongo.

Mi­nus the plane ride from Ka­tima Mulilo to Wind­hoek, it was a road trip of well over 2,000km. And we cer­tainly saw many dif­fer­ent things. It is not for noth­ing that the na­tional an­them praises “beau­ti­ful con­trast­ing Namibia”.

Of dol­phins and dunes

Con­sider this: It has not one, but two deserts. The Kala­hari is in the east, and hug­ging the At­lantic coast is the Namib, said to be the planet’s old­est and dri­est desert and is the source of the coun­try’s name.

There is no get­ting around the fact that much of Namibia is arid. But I rarely looked at it as des­o­late or mo­not­o­nous.

Many plants and an­i­mals have adapted to the harsh­ness. As the chang­ing scener­ies of the Namib flashed by while we trav­elled from Swakop­mund to Etosha, the desert showed that it is a wilder­ness where life is in­ven­tive and re­silient.

The Kala­hari did not fea­ture in our trip but we struck up an ac­quain­tance with the Namib on our se­cond day in the coun­try. Our base was Swakop­mund, which has the charm of a by­gone era and the dis­tinc­tion of hav­ing the cold At­lantic to the west and the desert on the other three sides.

But we had lit­tle time to ex­plore the town. Our sole full day in that area was mainly spent fur­ther south at Walvis Bay and Namib-Nauk­luft Na­tional Park.

En route to Walvis Bay, we had the Namib on the left and the ocean on the right. It was a baf­fling im­age. At some points, the fine sand had been blown across the road and all the way to the shore­line, giv­ing the im­pres­sion that the desert was dip­ping a toe in the At­lantic.

Most tourists head to Walvis Bay for a dol­phin and seal cruise. So we too went on a boat that took us rea­son­ably close to a noisy seal colony on a sand­spit.

The dol­phins turned up. They were fre­quently leap­ing out of the water, invit­ing us to snap away, although such was my tim­ing and skills that nearly all the pho­tos showed only rip­ples in the water and per­haps a tail or two.

We also saw a cou­ple of the blob-like ocean sun­fish or mola mola, the heav­i­est bony fish around.

For on-board en­ter­tain­ment, cruise pas­sen­gers could feed stow­away seals and peck­ish pel­i­cans. And the hu­mans were fed an oys­ter brunch to­wards the end of the cruise.

We swapped our boat for 4x4 ve­hi­cles that took us into a sec­tion of Namib-Nauk­luft

Na­tional Park where, as one brochure says, dunes and ocean meet. Our cars went over hills of sand and zoomed along the beach. At times, it was very much like sail­ing on a sandy sea.

We took a break at the foot of a dune. A ta­ble, food and ice-cold drinks ap­peared. A pic­nic in the desert is a slightly sur­real – the song Tea In The Sa­hara by The Po­lice was swirling around in my mind – but wholly sat­is­fy­ing way to end our in­tro­duc­tion to the Namib.

There were other parts of the coun­try for us to get to know. Trav­el­ling by road al­lowed us to see more.

With myr­iad shapes and colours, the Namib­ian ter­rain that we passed through in those 10 days had an ap­peal of its own.

At a sou­venir store, I browsed through a book that de­scribes Namibia as a “ge­o­log­i­cal won­der­land” and “one of the most ge­o­log­i­cally in­ter­est­ing coun­tries in the world”. Sure, we did not study rocks dur­ing our trip but

I have no prob­lems be­liev­ing the au­thor’s claim.

A re­gion of mighty rivers

Even the shape of the coun­try is worth men­tion­ing.

Here’s a short ge­og­ra­phy les­son. Imag­ine the coun­try as a rec­tan­gle ini­tially. Out came a gi­ant hand to squeeze hard at the bot­tom, caus­ing the up­per por­tion to bulge and a 450km pan­han­dle to squirt out at the north-eastern cor­ner.

This rib­bon of land is widely known as the Caprivi Strip. Divundu and Ka­tima Malilo are part of it, while Rundu is not far from the base of the pro­tru­sion. Above Caprivi are Namibia’s north­ern neigh­bours, An­gola and Zam­bia. Botswana lies to the south.

And now a quick his­tory les­son. Namibia was once a Ger­man colony. In an 1890 treaty with Bri­tain, Ger­many carved out the strip to gain ac­cess to the Zam­bezi River. The idea was that the river would con­nect Namibia with Ger­man ter­ri­tory in east Africa, and ul­ti­mately with the In­dian Ocean on the other side of the con­ti­nent.

One can only pre­sume that dur­ing the talks, no­body pointed out that such a river jour­ney re­quires go­ing 100m straight up or down Vic­to­ria Falls.

Nev­er­the­less, this blun­der gave Namibia a water-rich re­gion that boasts not just the Zam­bezi but two other river sys­tems with pretty fa­mous names: Oka­vango and Chobe.

The high­lights of our Caprivi ex­pe­ri­ence re­volved around these rivers. We en­joyed lovely river­ine ac­com­mo­da­tion and went on game drives on serene, green flood­plains.

An out­stand­ing mem­ory was that of be­ing at the right place at the right time when some 200 African buf­faloes trot­ted down from the hills at dusk to graze. A nar­row stretch of the Chobe River (and the in­vis­i­ble bor­der be­tween Namibia and Botswana) sep­a­rated us from the no­to­ri­ously un­pre­dictable an­i­mals.

In Caprivi, a boat ride on at least one of the mighty rivers is com­pul­sory. It is the best way to see crocodiles and hip­pos up close.

We un­for­tu­nately missed our op­por­tu­ni­ties, hav­ing learnt the hard way that de­spite what peo­ple say about the elas­tic­ity of “African time”, punc­tu­al­ity does mat­ter.

If you do not keep to your sched­ule and ar­rive late at a desti­na­tion, you may well find that gates have been closed or a river cruise has de­parted.

In our de­fence, we oc­ca­sion­ally fell be­hind be­cause there was a lot to do at our stops – new sur­round­ings to sur­vey, ex­pla­na­tions to ab­sorb, ques­tions to ask, stuff to buy and pic­tures to take. That’s right, it was all Namibia’s fault.

ER­ROL OH/The Star

The an­i­mals ar­rived at Okaukuejo in or­derly fash­ion and each knew its place. It was as if these wilde­beests and ze­bras had been taught the eti­quette of drink­ing at wa­ter­holes. —

Apart from see­ing seals and dol­phins, you get to feed peck­ish pel­i­cans when tak­ing a cruise from Walvis Bay.

The red har­te­beest, a type of large an­te­lope, is fea­tured on the Namib­ian $20 ban­knote.

It was al­most dusk. This lone oryx waded into the Okaukuejo wa­ter­hole to drink while sev­eral gi­raffes hov­ered ner­vously nearby. — Pho­tos: ER­ROL OH/ The Star

Many tours of the Namib in­clude the thrill of be­ing driven up and down steep sand dunes.

Sun­down in Africa is be­witch­ing, es­pe­cially if en­hanced with sil­hou­ettes of gi­raffes.

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