TOUR DIARY: DAMARALAND, KAOKOLAND & ETOSHA
Four old tjops tackle the bundu
Self-confessed “old tjops” Wendy (71) and Eric Thorburn (80) and their friends Gilly (76) and Angus Morrison (79) – all from Joburg – went on a road trip through Damaraland, Kaokoland and Etosha, proving that even senior citizens can have a great selfdrive holiday in Namibia.
DAY 1: Swakopmund to near Khorixas (325 km)
The early morning mist made the surface of the C34 slippery, so it made sense to lock the centre diff to keep the vehicle stable. Us Thorburns were in our diesel Toyota Fortuner, while Gilly and Angus drove a Prado.
When we turned inland from Henties onto the C35, a landscape of flat, barren plains opened up. But as the distant peaks of Spitzkoppe lifted over the horizon, small herds of springbok began to appear, and we came across three Rüppell’s korhaan – a species endemic to this part of the world. This was our first trip to northern Namibia. Gilly and Angus had last visited 30 years ago, so we were all excited.
By now the temperature was rising rapidly, and the Brandberg massif began to dominate the rising ground to the north.
We reached our destination at about lunchtime. Damara Mopane Lodge is 25 km east of Khorixas along the C39. This would be our base for exploring the region over the next few days. The lodge is owned by the Gondwana group and we made good use of our Gondwana Card to get discounts here and at their other lodges.
We didn’t do any camping on this trip. We wanted comfortable beds, and ice to go with our G&Ts. A lodge like Damara Mopane ticked all the boxes. Each chalet has its own walled vegetable garden. Urro Lilonga, the chief gardener, takes pride in this unique enterprise. Despite nightly kudu raids, he is able to produce an abundance of fresh vegetables.
DAY 2: To Twyfelfontein and back (250 km)
Driving west along the C39, we refuelled at Khorixas. After about 40 km we came to the “official” Petrified Forest (there are “informal” ones too). If you haven’t already seen them elsewhere, the unique welwitschia plants are also found here.
Continuing on the reasonable gravel road through a stunning landscape, we pulled out our binoculars at one point to study a group of Monteiro’s hornbill – yet another endemic and a first sighting for us.
An ice-cold Windhoek Lager at the Twyfelfontein Lodge fortified us for the scramble around the nearby amphitheatre of jumbled rock, covered in incredible rock art. Twyfelfontein is a World Heritage Site and preserves a remarkable legacy of Stone Age hunter-gatherers, and more recently, Bushmen. Other attractions nearby are the strange dolerite rock columns called the Organ Pipes, and Burnt Mountain.
We stopped for a picnic lunch on the banks of the dry Aba-Huab riverbed and saw fresh tracks in the sand – the elusive desert elephants!
DAY 3: Ugab and Vingerklip round trip (185 km)
After breakfast, we set off south along the D2743, through an area of flat-topped mountains and striking rock formations.
Our first stop was Ugab Terrace Lodge, perched high above the plain. Then on to Vingerklip, set apart from the other towering mesas. The energetic scramble to its base opened up yet another stunning
vista in this remarkable country. At Vingerklip Lodge we sat among the rocks, took out our flask and lunched on bananas and rusks. Instead of retracing our steps, we did a circuit along back roads like the D2752 in the direction of Outjo, through a rugged landscape of remote farmhouses.
DAY 4: Khorixas to Opuwo (380 km)
We’d seen lots of “low-tech” tyre-repair shops by the roadside, which reinforced our resolve to drive with great care. Being old tjops with arthritic backs, we took comfort in our pre-trip preparations. We’d designed and tested a rope-and-pulley system to take much of the strain out of managing the dead weight of a 4x4 wheel when changing it. Luckily, we never had a flat tyre.
We took the C35 tar road to Opuwo, a rough-and-ready Kaokoland frontier town. We spent the night at Ohakane Lodge, a peaceful haven in the centre of town.
DAY 5: Opuwo to Epupa Falls (180 km)
A roller-coaster ride lay before us on the gravel C43 heading north. As there are no cuttings or culverts, the road follows the contours of the land – you suddenly come upon a steep descent into a dry riverbed, with a disconcertingly narrow causeway. Angus and I chuckled to see that our wives spent much of the journey clinging to the grab handles!
DAY 6 & 7: Epupa Falls
Epupa Falls is a Kaokoland highlight. Winding through the desert, the placid Kunene River picks up speed as it threads between islands, before plunging into an incredible gorge. If you’ve driven all this way, it makes sense to spend a couple of lazy days here before you drive back south. We stayed at Omarunga Lodge.
Most lodges offer a guided visit to a nearby Himba village. We were concerned that very little of our R400 per person fee for the tour actually went to the Himba – we only saw a small parcel of mealiemeal being handed out by our guide.
During our two days here we also visited Epupa Primary School, about 15 km south of the falls, just off the C43. The modern teaching buildings had been financed by Norwegian donors and the staff were most enthusiastic. The pupils spend the week at school – they walk there on a Monday and walk home again on Friday. Despite this, there is no accommodation. Both pupils and teachers sleep on the floor in the classrooms (the teachers in a tent, in the corner). The government provides only two meals of pap a day. It made us realise how lucky our children are in South Africa.
DAY 8: Epupa to Toko Lodge near Kamanjab (452 km)
We headed south, via Opuwo, along the C35 tar road and stayed at Toko Lodge, on a game farm outside Kamanjab. A comfy bed, a good meal and a charming host made up for all those hard kilometres.
DAY 9: Toko Lodge to Okaukuejo, Etosha (278 km)
From the lodge we followed the D2695 gravel road towards the Andersson Gate into Etosha National Park.
Etosha is special because of the string of waterholes that follows the southern edge of the pan. As the dry season progresses, ever-increasing herds of game are drawn to these oases. We found the best time for game viewing to be during the heat of the day, as the animals are forced to the water – even though they know that predators are lying in wait. We drove from waterhole to waterhole and marvelled at all the game.
A feature of Okaukuejo rest camp is the floodlit waterhole, where you can see shy nocturnal animals. Elephant, jackal and lion are also frequent visitors. We saw 11 black rhino one evening!
DAY 10 & 11: Etosha
Day 10 was a leisurely one, during which we had a close sighting of a honey badger. We also saw huge herds of zebra and springbok and the rare black-faced impala.
Halali camp has been refurbished, and you can now enjoy a buffet-style breakfast. A word of warning: The buffet can become a bit of war zone. Hold on to your toast if there’s a big tour group in the area…
Heading out in the morning from Halali, we stopped at Salvadora waterhole where Wendy spotted a lioness crouching in the grass, just metres from the water’s edge – and a leap away from a pair of stupid tourists standing outside their vehicle. When we alerted them to the danger, the speed at which they dived back into their SUV was remarkable.
Meanwhile, hundreds of zebra were forming a long, nervous line. They took three paces forward, and then two back. They knew death was lurking. We were spellbound, holding our breath…
When it came, the action was explosive. The lioness burst from cover, the zebra leapt and pivoted, the dust swirled and hundreds of pounding hoofs resounded!
The lioness missed. It seemed unbelievable at the time, but not so improbable when we studied our photographs later. Those zebra could teach our rugby players a thing or two about evading tackles!
Yes, Etosha is everything and more than one could wish for, and it deserves the top spot on your bucket list when you plan a trip to this part of Namibia.
For accommodation listings for Damaraland, Kaokoland and Etosha, see page 119 – 122.