Namibian Travels Part 7 – Damaraland

Our tent in Etendeka Mountain Camp, Namibia.

After a thoroughly enjoyable stay we left Hobatere and headed south. Our first stop was Kamanjab, about 70 km from Etosha’s Galton Gate. The little settlements of about 6,000 people was different from the other towns we had come through before. Maybe it was just my skewed interpretation of it, but the place desolate and decrepit. An aura of hopelessness engulfed it. The largest retail outlet in town was a gun store, and what I assume were jobless youth were loitering around on the steps. There was nothing to see, no attractions to visit, and so we quickly filled up our car at the petrol station, bought some supplies in the attached store and disappeared in a cloud of dust.

As we drove deeper and deeper into Damaraland, the landscape around us began to change. The land became even drier than in the Etosha area, the vegetation thinner and hunched, and towering table mountains the colour of iron oxide rose around us. If it were not for the sparse vegetation and the occasional huts and settlements along the road, one might have mistaken this part of the country for Mars. We drove through the magnificent Grootberg pass (1540 m) and finally arrived in a hamlet called Palmwag. It was essentially a small collection of sheet metal huts, with an atmosphere similar to that in Kamanjab – just even drier and even more deprived.

Blocking the ford
Blocking the ford
Finally ...
Finally …

We cleared another police control post established to contain the Foot-and-mouth disease to the northern part of the country, and then parked our car at Palmwag Lodge. This was not our accommodation for the night though. We waited for some time and were then picked up by Boas, a guide and driver for Etendeka Mountain Camp. The camp is located deep in the Etendeka Mountains, and due to its remoteness even your average 4WD will have difficulties reaching it, so you are shuttled up there by Boas in his modified heavy-duty Landrover. We were joined by a German newlywed couple, Katja and Markus, handed military style water bottles that would serve us for the duration of our stay, our bags were loaded into a trailer and we were on our way. On a rough rocky track we drove into the mountains. After about half an hour drive we approached a ford in a small riverbed that was surrounded by vegetation and ran like a green band through the red landscape. As Boas spotted a herd of elephant right on the ford, we stopped and observed them grazing. There was no way of getting past them, and they did not appear to have any intentions of politely stepping aside, so in the end we had to wait for about an hour and watch them slowly eat their way up the river until they were far enough from the ford to not feel threatened by us. I managed a couple of nice shots, especially of a young elephant playing with his food, throwing the grass on his head and so on. After some time we heard a lion roar so loudly, it sounded like it was just behind the next rock, but we did not manage to catch a glimpse. Still, knowing a large predator to be so close without being able to see it made for a very peculiar feeling. But after some time we continued and arrived at the camp late in the afternoon.

Sunset over our tent
Sunset over our tent

We were greeted by Dennis, the owner, and shown around. The camp consists of a number of structures. A small open main building made of quarry stone contains a small bar, sitting area with literature about the local flora and fauna, and geology, the kitchen, a charging station for electronics (as the whole camp generates electricity exclusively from solar power, there are no power sockets in the tents) and the eating area. There are some tents for staff and supplies and eight guest tents fanning out from the main building. They all face a vast open plateau encircled by mountains. We were shown the tents which are not the camping kind, but permanent structures, albeit more basic than those in Mushara, and the adjoining open air bucket shower, which has to be filled with water from the tab, then hoisted up above ones head. Essentially a more sophisticated version of the way I used to shower for a year when living in West Africa.

The shower
The shower
View from the shower
View from the shower

Shortly after we met at the little bar where Dennis proved to be a perfect host. Then dinner was served, which was rustic, but incredibly tasty. A salad, casserole, apple-cinnamon crumble, a nice wine. Again, everyone (which in this case was only us six guests and Dennis) ate together at one table. Dennis’ tales of decades in the mountains, and Markus and Katja’s incredibly extensive travelling experiences, made for hours of interesting conversations. Afterwards Dennis informed us about the itinerary for the next day. Yes, that came as a surprise for us too, and as I now found out according to Tripadvisor reviews not everyone is automatically happy about that, but there is in fact an itinerary.

The next day I awoke as the first light rays crept over the mountain tops and filled the plateau. I jumped out of bed, grabbed my camera and tripod and set up to capture the sunrise. Being lazy I just took a single, deliberately underexposed image, then went back into the tent. Only after a couple of days, when I went ahead and developed the RAW, I realised that I had still managed to blow out the highlights in the sky. Argh, what a rookie mistake! We then enjoyed an early breakfast, and headed out with the other guests and Boas for a hike. As we walked over the plateau, Boas kept picking up the droppings of various animals, made us guess the species, picking them apart etc. As he picked up the first piece we all grimaced, but soon realised that while the outer shell looked wet and slimy, it was in fact absolutely dry. Boas broke the piece apart and it was actually filled with dry grass that looked very similar to the kind of hay my cousins used to feed to their pet rabbits. Nothing disgusting about that at all. The only piece of excrements that he did not touch belonged to hyenas, as the droppings of carnivores are not safe to handle without gloves. It also happened to be white, as hyenas often crush and devour entire bones. We also learnt more about the local plants, their peculiarities and medicinal uses. Boas was by far the most knowledgable guide we encountered in Namibia, and we greatly enjoyed the walk.

Boas and the oryx skull
Boas and the oryx horns
Sunset
Sunset

Around noon we returned to camp, had lunch and got some time to relax freely. I used the chance to hook my laptop up to the WiFi and browse the internet – quite ironically the connection was the fastest I ever got in Namibia. Later in the day we had a little game drive that was not very eventful. We found rhino tracks though, and even though we did not manage to find the corresponding rhino, the search itself made for good fun. In the end we had the best sundowner of the holiday, simply because the sunset over the mountains was amazing and it was accompanied by highly addictive home-made biltong. That evening before dinner Dennis got out his big, professional, telescope with a digitally controlled equatorial mount and offered us a glimpse at the stars. We saw Jupiter and Venus, and Saturn with its rings. The night was so dark and clear that we could even make out little spots of light travelling across the sky and through the bright band of the milky way, and were amazed when Dennis told us that these were actually satellites!

Star gazing
Star gazing

The next morning we had another delicious breakfast, were given a big bag of provisions for the day, then loaded our bags into the trailer and were driven back to Palmwag to continue our journey. Overall I would rate our stay at Etendeka as among the best we had. The host and guide were exceptionally hospitable and friendly, the food absolutely delicious, the location stunning and the activities interesting and educating. Considering that the accommodation is rather basic, some people might at first glance find the rates to be rather high, but one needs to keep in mind that they are all-inclusive. And ‘all-inclusive’ really meant just that – all game drives and activities, all drinks at the bar etc. Plus for a landscape and astro-photographer, Etendeka is simply paradise, so: highly recommended!

Read Part 8 here.

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