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NAMIBIA
Call of the wild


Night safari
Night safaris offer more opportunities for game sightings.
Photos by Mary King


Mary King goes wild on safari in Etosha.

Map of NamibiaMention Namibia and many people either draw a blank or recall vaguely a guerrilla war with South Africa. Few are aware that this country, wedged between the Kalahari desert and the chilly South Atlantic Ocean, boasts both enormous potential and spectacular beauty. Beyond having one of Africa' largest game parks, Etosha, Namibia possesses a whimsical array of floral and faunal oddities-from a plant that has lived 1500 years to surreal desert landscapes and a coastline shared by flamingos, penguins, seals, elephants and ostriches. It is a country of extremes, of blistering heat and bitter cold, where the visitor must be prepared to travel thousands of kilometers through a Daliesque world to witness attractions that are scattered like rare pearls across this vast land.

The good news, for those who don't already know, is that the war is over. Namibia became self-governing in 1990 and is a peaceful and easy country to travel in, offering creature comforts that you would expect to find in Japan and the West. Many visitors to Namibia simply fly into Windhoek, the capital, and join tours from there but it is more popular, cheaper and easier to book with one of the adventure tour groups in neighboring South Africa. A mid-range 16-day tour by minibus (including food and camping equipment) starts at around 3000 rand (about JY45,000).

Quiver tree
Quiver trees near the Giant's playground

Giants' Playground
Having crossed into Namibia from South Africa at Ariemsvlei, the tour group I had joined followed the main asphalt road to Keetmanshoop. Hardly any traffic passed us on the road, and our eyes were dazzled by the sharp reflections on the asphalt that threw out mirages of water. Ant hills, a meter high and more, dotted the scorched red earth, stretching out to the horizon, and kudu, one of Namibia's most elusive animals, were sightable occasionally running into the bush. It was sunset by the time we reached our destination, the Quiver tree Forest and nearby Giants' Playground. The Kokerboom, or quiver tree, is found only in Namibia and close to the country's border on the South African side. The tree, which has adapted to the harsh desert environment, grows as high as seven meters and is characterized by a waxy surface coating, fibrous trunk, spindly branches and pithy leaves that develop into water containers. This supernatural-looking tree bursts into a radiant yellow bloom in July and earned its nickname from the Bushmen's use of its hollow branches for quivers. An eerie silence filled the Giants' Playground where we climbed up the bizarrely shaped rocks that rested upon each other like an enormous version of children's building blocks. As we walked through the maze of volcanic rocks that have cracked and weathered over millions of years, it seemed as though they must have been arranged purposefully by a playful Goliath.

ZebrasOn safari
Game sightings came during our two days in Etosha, which covers an area of 22,270km2. Winters (June, July and August in the Southern Hemisphere) are cool and dry and this is the best time to spot game as the animals tend to congregate around the water holes. There are 114 species of mammals in Etosha, including elephant, black rhino, lion, cheetah, brown hyena, giraffes and various antelope. A wonderful evening was spent watching animals around the floodlit water hole at Okaukuejo campsite.

Giraffe
Etosha offers many chances to spot big game

Early the next morning we made our way gradually through the park, keeping our eyes peeled for activity in the bush. Ostriches, giraffes, elephants and zebras were visible in abundance, as were wildebeest, gemsbok, springbok and dik dik. Finally, we entered the true rough terrain of the Kaoko Veld wilderness in search of the nomadic Himba people, one of Africa's last hunter-gatherer tribes. But the Himba were too elusive for us and the only sign of human life was that of the Herero people with their scattered kraals of rondavel huts. At Twyfelfontein we stopped to look at sandstone-rock animal engravings made by Bushmen between 2000 to 3000 years ago. Then it was on to the wild Spitzkop mountains and the foothills of what is dubbed the Matterhorn of Namibia, boasting hidden caves and rock paintings, where we camped for the night under a star-studded sky.

Ghost town
Kolmanskop is now a ghost town that has been reclaimed by the sand dunes



Ghosts of the desert

The next day we headed for the coast, to the Cape Cross seal colony with its thousands of seals. Following the barren Skeleton Coast, a 200km stretch that earned its name due to its treacherous waters, we entered the German colonial town of Swakopmund. From there, we drove 25km east to Goantikontes, an oasis nestled in a dramatic moonscape besides the Swakop River. Here, an area has been created for the sole protection of the rare Welwitschia plant, referred to as a living fossil, which is unique to Namibia. Recognizable by its two long and leathery leaves torn into a disheveled tangle of windblown strips, the oldest surviving specimen is said to be 1500 years old. This grotesque-looking plant is also unisexual. Changing its gender depending on the demands of the environment, to produce male or female cones, but never both simultaneously.

The welwitschia plant
The welwitschia plant is unique to Namibia

Continuing through the Namib Desert, we arrived at Sossusvlei, the world's highest sand dunes, in time to climb their sandy summits and enjoy the subtle lighting of the desert sunset. We made a fascinating excursion from Luderitz to Kolmanskop, once a diamond-mining town, but now a ghost town that has been reclaimed by the sand dunes. Dating from 1908, when the first diamond was picked up from the dust, Kolmanskop developed swiftly into a bustling town of 1000 people with its own casino, skittle alley and theater. Immediately after World War I, the death knell for the town was sounded when richer deposits were discovered near the Orange River, 300km away. The last day of our odyssey through Namibia, with some 7000km already behind us, culminated with us moving through the diamond desert belt to Fish River Canyon, the second largest canyon of its kind in the world. A fitting end to a fascinating journey through one of the world's most unique landscape.

The Herero people

The Herero people

Getting there:
Singapore Airlines (www.singaporeair.com) operate flights to Johannesburg via Singapore or Taipei. South African Airlines (www.saa.co.za) have flights from Johannesburg to Windhoek.

Where to stay:
Windhoek Country Club Resort & Casino, (Tel: +264-61-2055911), Aris Hotel, (Tel: +264-61-236006). For information on hotels in Namibia see http://interhotel.com/namibia/en/localidades/29859.html  

Information:
ORYNX TOURS, PO Box 2058, Windhoek, Namibia, See www.iwwn.com.na/oryx/, (Tel: +264-61-21-7454, Fax: +264-61-26-3417), Email: oryx@oryxtours.com.na 


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395: Rising from the ashes
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SEPTEMBER

393: Bathing Apes
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391: The betels and the stones
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AUGUST
387: Prague
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383: South Africa
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JULY
381: Hawaii
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377: Salt of the earth
Tour the Uyuni Salt Pan
374: China
Suzhou and Hangzhou
370: The Nile
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367: Tibet
Top of the world
363: Laos
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360: Cuzco, Peru
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357: Namibia
Call of the wild
354: Southern India
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