The bags were packed, the boarding passes printed, the airport parking booked. At 4 am we got into the car and left for the airport. There are two airlines offering direct flights from Germany to Namibia, both from Frankfurt – Namibia Airlines and Condor. We chose Condor, and after a ten hour flight touched ground at Hosea Kutako, Windhoek’s main and only airport and probably the smallest airport I have ever flown into, bar Freetown’s Lungi International Airport in Sierra Leone. Both the internet and our travel guide book had warned us about the fact that Namibian winter nights can be chilly, but only when we were queuing outside the terminal at eight in the evening in our thin sweaters and shorts we realised that they had not been exaggerating – it was pretty damn cold. In fact, that night the mercury went down to -1°C, and -5°C the next night. We were happy when we finally made it insight. In the terminal everyone had to present to a desk and have their image taken, or so we thought. When I progressed past the desk I actually realised that no image had been taken, instead we had been checked for signs of fever via thermal imaging, a procedure implemented to screen for potential Ebola carriers.
We then went through immigration, collected our luggage and made our way to the Avis booth. There we were handed a small bag put together by our travel agency containing a satnav and several maps. Renting a car in Namibia can be a bit of a curious thing, kudos to the rental company’s rather ridiculous regulations, especially in regard to insurance policies. One second the little ‘Driving in Namibia’ booklet tells you that only 10% of road accidents in Namibia involve a second party (i.e. another car), the next second the insurance policy reminds you that accidents involving only one party (i.e. you crashing into something) are not covered. Essentially the basic insurance cover does hardly deserve the name, as it covers almost nothing, and no matter how much extra cover you purchase (for the tyres, windscreen etc.), you cannot insure yourself against accidents not involving a second party, which is 90% of all accidents. Anyway, we had a quick look at our car (an almost brand new Toyota Hillux double cab 4WD that had only made about 2,000 km so far) in the dark and then made our way towards Windhoek, which is located about half an hour drive away from the airport. We arrived at our first stop, Olive Grove Guest House, late, were shown to our rooms and after a cup of tea called it a day. The heating (reverse AC) did not work properly in our room, so we were grateful for the extra blankets and the hot bottle we found under the sheets. The next morning we had a delicious breakfast on the patio and were on our way. Because of our extremely short stay I cannot say much about this accommodation except for that the rooms were rather nice, the en suite bathroom extremely stylish, the heating inefficient and the breakfast delicious.
We had planned our route in order to avoid the crowds in Etosha and thus decided to explore Windhoek at the end of our journey instead of in the beginning. So we stocked up on water (in a country as hot and sparsely populated as Namibia it is always recommended to have at least a couple of litres of water per person in the car at all times) and snacks at a surprisingly modern local supermarket featuring digital price tags, and then left Windhoek towards the north. As we left the city we noticed groups of huts along the roadside. Constructed out of the most basic materials like plastic and rusty sheet metal these served as a reminder that even though Namibia is a relatively wealthy and developed country by Sub-Sahara African standards, it has not yet managed to defeat the kind of extreme poverty that is still rife across the region. We also saw baboons perched on rocky outcrops but I did not bother to get my camera out, because I expected to see many more once we would go on safari.
Our second stay would be Kambaku Safari Lodge. Located in a private game reserve close to Otjiwarongo, it had been recommended to us by our neighbours as a great place to start our journey. But first we stopped in Okahandja, a town of about 25,000 people 70 km north of Windhoek. Its main attraction are its art markets, a couple of accumulations of huts where local artisans sell arts and crafts – from weaved baskets to wooden masks, from carved animal figures to colourful fabrics. Prices are not fixed but arrived at through haggling. To many Western tourists this is often unfamiliar and they end up paying much more than necessary. Having lived in Ghana before and with a year of bargaining experience I was enjoying a bit of an advantage here. The key to successful bargaining is to understand that the final prices agreed on can never be too low. Vendors often initially quote an amount that is at least double, often four times the actual reasonable price for the object in question. Too many tourists agree on a price way too soon, thinking it unfair to go lower due to the perceived relative poverty of the seller and because, after all, the product is already much cheaper than it would be in their home country. However, it is important to understand that the vendors have a lot of experience at what they are doing and would never sell a product at a loss. No matter what price you agree on in the end, the seller will make a good profit. So do not be afraid to engage in some intense haggling, and if you arrive at a point where the vendor refuses to go any lower, just walk away from it. In many instances the vendor will come running after you, ready to accept your final offer. In the case of Okahandja it is also important to not give away your name to any of the guys asking unless you are interested in purchasing a custom-made key tag made from some sort of local seed. The vendors will not tell you why they need your name, quickly carve it into the seed within a couple of minutes and return, trying to sell you the key tag, expecting you to feel compelled to buy it due to it being custom-made.
So after we had completed our tour of the market stalls and enjoyed a tea and coffee in the restaurant on the opposite side of the road we were on our way again. As we zoomed along the main tar road going north through the country, we heard a siren quickly approaching. Before we knew the cars before us and we were forced off the road by a convoy of about a dozen police cars and some black SUVs that seemed to be convinced they needed both lanes. We were later told by lodge staff that what we were dealing with was probably some highly ranked politician or one of the heroes of the independence struggle.
We arrived at Kambaku around sunset and received a warm welcome complete with cool fruit juices. I immediately made my way past reception to the patio, and was treated to an almost stereotypical African scene – two giant giraffes, striding across the plains against the backdrop of a beautiful sunset. We quickly sorted out the administrative stuff at reception, carried our luggage into the rooms and then joined a couple of other guests around the campfire. After some time it became so chilly that we retreated into the main lodge building and sat down on some antelope skins in front of the blazing fire-place, and just a bit later dinner was served, which turned out to be a very social affair. Kambaku is a rather small lodge and all guests dine together at one big table, joined by at least one staff member and one of the owners. The food (three courses with the main course usually being some sort of game shot on the reserve like oryx, eland or impala) was delicious and we were treated to a host of entertaining stories of neighbouring farmers firing their shotguns at local telecom staff and gnus falling into swimming pools. Johannes, the owner, also spent a lot of time telling my little brother about the local wildlife and showed him his personal collection of leopard pictures.
For my father, brother, another guest and I the next day’s first activity was clay pigeon shooting. Having never fired anything bigger than an air rifle, holding a proper shotgun was quite something. We started off from an easy position and I managed to hit the first pigeon, but I must have been holding the thing wrong as it felt like the recoil had properly mashed up everything in my shoulder. So after another shot (a miss this time) I prematurely retired from the sport and resorted to taking pictures of the others. With the high speeds involved the 9 fps of my camera certainly came in handy, and I managed to get a shot of the clay disc bursting the moment it was hit by the lead – score! Afterwards we returned to the lodge for relaxation and some afternoon tea and cake.
In the late afternoon we were picked up for our first game drive by Jimmy, our guide for the evening. The drive took us across the 80 sq km reserve at a comfortable speed. Jimmy managed to spot several species of antelope and point them out to us, but due to the thick scrubby vegetation they were hard to photograph. They were also quite shy and fled quickly. The only wildlife I got a good shot at were giraffes. It is difficult to miss these giants, which tower over the scrubs and shorter trees like telegraph posts. They acted much more relaxed than the antelopes and only walked away slowly when the car got too close. After about two hours of game watching the sun approached the horizon and we stopped for a ‘sundowner’. We got out of the car, Jimmy summoned a bowl of crisps and nuts and started mixing some drinks. With a gin and tonic in hand we watched the sunset in style.
The next morning was spent mostly relaxing, reading, sipping tea and observing animals at the nearby waterhole – unfortunately it was a bit too far away to get decent pictures. Then we made our way to the lodge’s stables for a horse riding tour. While my brother and I had done some riding as children and my father had been riding once decades ago, my mother had never sat on a horse in her life. So the lodge staff decided to play it safe and gave each one of us our personal guide. And so we trundled along the dusty paths of the reserve. The greatest advantage of a horseback safari is that in contrast to drives in a Landrover or walks, wild animals do not consider you an intruder. Perceiving you as a four-legged being they just go about their usual business, allowing you to get very close to them. Now if there would only be a way to comfortably carry a DSLR on horseback without a saddle bag …
Overall I cannot recommend Kambaku enough. Due to the dense vegetation and shy animals game viewing is somewhat limited, but the homey atmosphere, great food, beautiful rooms and interesting activities more than make up for it. Photography wise I managed a couple of nice shots of giraffe and a beautiful moonrise over the bush.
In the next article we will cut right to the chase – we are going on safari. Shots of lions, gnus, cheetahs, elephants, zebras and many more plus a quick guide of how to photograph the wildlife of Etosha National Park (that one later tough)!