Etosha and Beyond

15.7.2018

[Above photo: Leo and his lass at leisure. What looks like smog in the distance is the Etosha Salt Pan]

We arrived at Etosha’s Namutoni Gate to find that all the camping spots were taken. And the cheap rooms. So we sprang for a chalet for two nights and unpacked. The waterhole at the camp was busy with —-birds. Clusters of Guinea Fowl. No mammals. But a lovely sunset. We spent two nights in Etosha and were stunned by the sere beauty of the park. It is dry, dry, dry. The salt pan, around which the game cluster at water holes, stretches 60km by 120km. Standing on the edge of the pan, it is like looking at the ocean without waves or water. You cannot see the other shore and it is flat without any plant growth. In some places it is green, suggesting copper sulfate or a saline-tolerant algae.  You aren’t supposed to get out of your car in Etosha except at the toilets and in the enclosed restaurant/camping/lodge areas. Why they think the lions won’t eat you in the toilets, I’m not sure. They are out in the wilds without fencing. Fastidious cats, perhaps.

The geography is amazing, flat grasslands, open woodlands, and the pan. It is Winter, so we weren’t hot during the day and, in the chalet, were comfortable at night. [Elsewhere it has been very cold some nights and one of us pulls up another blanket or opens a sleeping bag over us at 2AM. The tent isn’t very insulated!]  We saw small herds of Giraffe, Ostrich, Black-faced Impala, Gemsbok (Oryx), and Red Hartebeest and large herds of Blue Wildebeest, Springbok, and Zebra, occasional Elephants, Rhino, Black-backed Jackal, and Steenbok. A pride of 4 female and 2 male lions walked right by, terrifying a group of Springbok who fled the neighborhood. The lions settled down in the thick grass by a waterhole and slept in the sun. Lions apparently sleep or rest up to 23 hours/day if not on the hunt. The females do the hunting but the dominant male gets the first meal of the kill. Like the guy who flips the burgers in the backyard and takes credit for the meal, including the prep, salad, and desert. Later we saw two more lions snoozing by the roadside. If we had stayed longer in the park, we would have witnessed more, of course. People we talked with at our next camping spot [Mondjilo] had spent two hours watching 4 lions consume a kill, munching on the bones. Another couple had watched lions attack a rhino; it was over quickly, as the rhino ran off. It’s a little like attacking a Sherman tank. What’s the point? They probably couldn’t have bitten through the skin. We saw lots of interesting birds, as well, including numerous Kori Bustard.  After two days, we’d had enough of viewing animals. All of our visits to Malawi’s game parks have taken some of the urgency off our tallying game.

We, again, ran into our friends, Peter and Caroline, at Namutoni. They are staying in Etosha for 6 nights  with two couples, including Caroline’s sister, Alison. We all supped at the restaurant. I set my wine glass down on a crack between two tables supposedly pushed together. The crevice was hidden by a table cloth. Red wine all over the table. I turned to Alison on my right, assuming she’d dumped her wine over and then had to apologize. Linda laughed at a familiar scene. I bang my head at times. At the first party at her home in Bar Harbor when I was just getting to know her, I clumsily tipped over a bottle of wine. Anyway, the Eland fillet was superb, my favorite after Warthog.

Now we are at the Waterberg Plateau National Park, camping in the public campground. It is nestled under the red vertical cliffs of the plateau. There are also fancy chalets up the hill and a classy restaurant in the old police station; the single prison cell has been turned into a wine cellar. The swimming pool up the hill had a family of Warthogs grazing by it, unafraid of us. A huge and very unique safari bus/truck just pulled into the camping spot next to ours, disgorging 6 French nationals, 3 Namibian staff, and a mountain of wall tents, tables and chairs, etc. Quite the way to see the countryside. A shout from one of them in the middle of the night caused us to wonder if it was the result of a nightmare (“cauchmere”) or an orgasm. Quite different experiences!

We are minimalists in our little X-Trail with our “Two Person Solitude” (a little ironic) dome tent. Linda is painting on used teabags—her miniatures are a marvelous record of our voyage—and I’m pecking away at my laptop, sitting in a hammock and as content as I can be.  Although I’m getting hungry, so I’ll pause here.

Back the next day. We hiked to the top of the plateau yesterday and while savoring the view Linda noted a snake crawling around a nearby rock face. Later, as we sat on an adjacent rock enjoying the view, a group of Germans shouted to us that a snake was coming to visit. Indeed, and I banged my hiking pole on a rock in front of it and it changed direction, climbing a small tree. Fellow campers from Mainz had a snake book and 10yo Ella pointed out that it was a mamba. At last! There is wildlife all over here. Yesterday as we sat on the restaurant terrace 11 Striped Mongeese entered stage-right and began digging in the tidy lawn 10 feet from us, looking for insects. After awhile, they all walked to an open tiled drainage and curled up in a big heap, enjoying the warmth of the tiles, I suppose. We regularly have a Warthog or two in our campground and Damara Dik-diks, Africa’s smallest antelope (think fox terrier size with huge dewy eyes), prance through each morning and evening. Today took the cake, however. Linda had just finished making wonderful salami and cheese sandwiches and wrapped them in aluminum foil for our hike when I heard her yell. Turning I saw nothing at first, then a large black hand reached up over the edge of the braii top and snatched the foil packet. The baboon had the effrontery to go 20 feet away where I could see her and scarf it all down! I have photo documentation. Soon we heard a shout from another campground and a troop of 15 baboons —the Huns and the Vandals—loped by, one with obvious foodstuffs in its chops.

Namibia is, as we’d heard, easy in which to travel. Main roads are smooth and well-marked. Campgrounds are plentiful, cheap, and well-kept. Small towns (the largest is Windhoek, the capital, at <400,000) look prosperous and middle-class. Yet there is 40% unemployment, expected life span has sunk from 60yo to 51yo in the past 25 years, and HIV/AIDS is responsible for 1/3 of the deaths (I don’t have the most recent figures, as I don’t have internet access.). Apparently a lot has been put into services and infrastructure, including health care and rural electrification, in recent years. There has been very profitable mining and reputedly the most modern cement factory in the world is here. Namibia is a large (larger than France and England combined) yet very sparsely populated country with  2.5 million residents. The birth rate is 1.4% and falling. If only Malawi could boast the same.

Our standard room is modest in proportions, modern in design and sparsely furnished. It doesn’t have AC but is very well ventilated. A bit like a ship, it has pockets and small hammocks for things like books and eyeglasses. There is a vestibule on each side in which we keep hot tea with milk in a thermos and two cups so before we rise at dawn we can have a cuppa in bed.  Our sleeping arrangement is: two Thermarest matrasses side by side (one was punctured by an acacia thorn last night and deflated), a two inch foam pad over them, a thick wool blanket over that, sheets, pillows, and more covers on top. Two wool blankets are standard but it is getting cold and will get colder as we approach the ocean and the  Namib Desert.   We have an additional two acrylic blankets and two sleeping bags unzipped so we should be warm. Oh, and fleece pants and tops, socks if needed, gloves and watch caps for real cold. The warmth and companionship of the bed does discourage me from going out in the cold, with who knows what wild animals about, at 2AM, so I suffer a little, snooze a little, dream of swimming pools and waterfalls, and, finally, rouse myself for the inevitable.

I know that when I travelled in 1972, after two months  I felt a bit useless, like walking through a fascinating museum/zoo for too long. Working hard in Blantyre for two years makes this feel earned and, thus, not so frivolous. Yet I cannot help but think about the tiny fraction of Malawians who have ever been able to afford a visit to one of their splendid game parks. I count my manifold blessings regularly.

Like discovering today why the right rear tire was at 18# pressure the day we left Malawi and why it again has fallen in the two weeks we’ve been gone. A screw is sticking into it. Since we’ve drive 4000km at least with it in there and over some horrendous roads, I’m betting it won’t get worse quickly. But we’ll have it fixed when we can. How very fortunate that it was a screw, not a nail. A pretty good self-sealing puncture, I’d say.

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