Thursday, April 15, 2010

Namibia, Land of Extremes

Day 74: Etosha National Park, Namibia
Monday we drove over five hours to reach the Namibia border. It was a lonely border post, devoid of people save the handful of border officials. Such desolation was fitting for one of the most sparsely populated nations on Earth. Despite Namibia's reputation as a vast land of inhospitable deserts, our first experience with the country was quite the opposite. Our destination was Ngepi Camp, situated in the outer reaches of the Okavango Delta in the western part of the narrow Caprivi Strip, the northeastern panhandle of Namibia. When we arrived, we discovered that floods had cut off road access to the campsite. We unloaded all our tents and cooking supplies and sent them to the camp via boat. We then traveled to the camp in small groups in a Land Rover that could ford the river. As our Land Rover pulled up to the reception office, waves washed into the building's foundation.

Ngepi Camp was one of the quirkiest campsites we have visited, with a lounge full of massive bean bags and outside showers and toilets enclosed by walls of dried reeds. One reed enclosure is labeled the "Toilet of Eden". There is no door, but a notch where a stick can be placed horizontally across the walkway to indicate that the toilet is in use. Inside the large space, surrounded by lush trees and bushes, is a toilet situated like a throne on top of a pedestal. Next to the "Toilet of Eden" is another curious enclosure. A sign indicating "Gents" points to the left, and one indicating "Ladies" points to the right. If you walk to the left, a maze-like passageway leads all the way around the enclosure and ends right where the "Ladies" sign is hanging: there is only one entrance to the bathroom. Inside are two toilets side by side, with no barrier between them. The one labeled "Gents" has a chain and padlock holding the seat up, and the one labeled "Ladies" is adorned by a fuzzy pink rug. There are also a few outside showers scattered throughout Ngepi Camp, also enclosed by reed walls and guarded by notches and sticks for doors.

That night, I could hear the unmistakable grunting of hippos in the nearby flooded river. In the morning, we took boats back to the truck, but it took a very long time because the water was too shallow in many places for the boat to navigate – we got stuck on the bottom at one point and had to reverse to navigate a path to dry land. A few feet from shore, we had to climb out of the boat into the shallow water and wade with our bags the rest of the way. But the adventures of Ngepi Camp were not over yet.

We were already running late due to the flooding, but when our driver started the truck's engine and hit the gas, we felt a jolt and heard the futile spinning of the wheels. We were stuck in sand. He reversed a few times and tried to dislodge our tires, but we just sank deeper into the ruts. All 21 of us piled out of the truck and positioned ourselves at the back. When the driver hit the gas, we all pushed simultaneously. Despite the massive weight of our truck, it did budge slightly but then sank back into the sand. We tried a few more times to no avail before attempting another strategy. We pulled out four long metal tracks that were stored underneath the truck and positioned one in front of each tire. We gave one final push: the tires gripped the metal tracks and the truck escaped from the sandy pits, leaving four gigantic ruts in the earth. We were finally on our way, an hour and a half late.

Giant baobab tree, near Grootfontein, Namibia
Dwarfed by a giant baobab tree ("Tree 1063") near Grootfontein in northern Namibia
We drove until 5:00, stopping along the way for a two hour shopping break in the town of Rundu on the border with Angola. I bought a new pair of flip flops from a junky shop along a dusty road, as a strap on mine had broken. We bush camped that night near a Namibian national monument, the Giant Baobab Tree. This gargantuan tree has two main trunks that absolutely dwarf any tree I've ever seen. There is not much to do at bush camps, so Jude visited Tom and me in our tent, and we played Scrabble for a few hours.

Yesterday we drove almost three hours to the famed Etosha National Park in northern Namibia. We proceeded straight into a game drive, and we saw the usual – mostly zebra, gazelle, and a few giraffes. We also visited the Etosha Pan, the massive 75-mile-long dry salt pan that dominates the park. The landscape all the way to the horizon is as smooth and flat as a piece of paper, textured only by patterned cracks in the dry clay mud. When we reached our campsite at Okaukuejo, I walked over to the nearby watering hole where I spotted an elephant drinking and bathing by twilight. During the night, we heard the haunting calls of nearby jackals, which ran right past our tents and even took one guy's shoe.

Sun over Etosha Pan, Etosha National Park, Namibia © Matt Prater
The harsh desert sun blazes over the Etosha Pan in Etosha National Park, Namibia
People jumping, Etosha Pan, Etosha National Park, Namibia © Matt Prater
People jumping at the Etosha Pan, Etosha National Park, Namibia

This morning, we awoke extremely early for another game drive – a familiar routine by now. We spotted zebra, oryx, impala, a giraffe here and there, and a jackal – nothing terribly exciting. It sounds jaded, but it's just not that exciting to see another zebra or impala after having seen a million of them. I spent the rest of the day organizing my photos while lounging by the pool back at Okaukuejo Camp. At sunset, I climbed the spiral staircase to the top of a stone castle-like tower that serves as an observation point. Afterward, I skipped the truck dinner and went instead to the camp restaurant with a few friends. Dinner was buffet-style, but the meat was cooked on the spot while you watched. They had chicken and kudu – both were excellent, but those kudu steaks were the best meat I think I've ever eaten. Lions sure do have good taste. We all had piles of steaks and retired to our tents absolutely stuffed. We will probably still be full in the morning after so much meat!

Zebras at watering hole, Etosha National Park, Namibia © Matt Prater
Zebras at a watering hole in Etosha National Park, Namibia
Impala, Etosha National Park, Namibia © Matt Prater
An impala in Etosha National Park, Namibia

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