The end of the big road trip

After crossing the South African border (twice!), I headed for Rustenberg, about an hour and a half North of Johannesburg. This was not a random stop, but rather a visit to Rainhill Farm, a property owned by relatives of mine until 1978, and now converted into a bed and breakfast. The Magaliesburg mountains are right behind it and the area is a very popular holiday destination.


The Magaliesburg mountains, behind Rainhill Farm.


Rosemary Cottage, where I spent the night. There was a large antique bath facing the rear, with a large window just above it. It felt like having a bath in the forest!



Hartley’s Pub, housed in the old 1940’s milk shed. Look at the signs; I wish we had those prices in Canada. $6 T-bone, $1 Friday night draught special. I made a beginner’s mistake and went for dinner there without my pocket camera. Even though it was a Wednesday, the place was packed. I met a local guy named Lee-Roy and his girlfriend-who-was-too-shy-to-speak-English-despite-the-fact-her-English-was-fine. He explained that due to the mine strikes, many skilled employees, such as engineers and managers, were still getting paid, but were not exactly very busy at work, hence the pub being full on a Wednesday! We also talked about security and the fact I had generally felt safe in South Africa, except for that very afternoon, when I had to go to a downtown bank machine. I told him where I had gone and he was not impressed at all. What can I say; I was young and I needed the money. As a rule, go to ATMs in suburban malls in South Africa, never in inner cities.

The next day, I headed to Johannesburg to sleep at an airport hotel in order to catch an early morning flight. The Kia Picanto was ridiculously dirty and the rental contract threatened a $30 charge for excessive dirt. Since I had opened my door in Lüderitz during a sand storm, “excessive” was the right word. After asking the hotel owner for advice, I had the car detail cleaned for $4! The shop was in an area I never would have stopped in, but he had assured me it was safe. At the time, I didn’t try to reconcile his assertion the place was safe with the barbed wire, electric fence around his own property, but I survived unharmed.

And that was it; 6,525 km in 26 days, Cape Town to Johannesburg through Namibia and Botswana! Overall, a very nice trip. I had hoped to meet some independent travellers along the way and share the car, but that turned out to be quite unlikely. I rented the car because there was no realistic alternative to go to most places I visited. Therefore, everyone I met already had a car. Only once did I have some company, as I picked-up a hitchhiker in Botswana (he was a cop, going to the regional police headquarter in Maun, so it seemed safe enough).

Surprisingly, a distant relative of mine was on the same Johannesburg to Livingstone flight as I was. Amazingly, I couldn’t meet her, because I had to find another person I knew on the very same flight, since we were arranging transportation in Livingstone together! We also created some interesting little lies for the Zambian immigration officials. I had put “Staying with friend/relative” on the immigration form, but I didn’t have the address, as said friend was picking me up. My friend Ollie, who was going to stay at the same place, had just put the name of a random hotel he saw in a magazine, the Victoria Falls Hotel. That’s what I usually do when asked that stupid question on immigration forms, as I rarely make reservation for hotels, unless I am arriving at night. So while waiting in line, I grabbed another immigration form and put the same hotel name on it. At the counter, the following discussion took place:

– “So you are going to Zimbabwe today”

– “Euh… no.”

– “But your hotel is in Zimbabwe.”

– “Ooohhh… I … guess … I am … then …”

I think the agent was more amused than anything else, and in Zambia I went, with an $80 multiple entry visa I ended up not using. Zambian stories tomorrow…


How I became an illegal immigrant.

After a great day in Nata, on the salt pans of Botswana, I drove to the capital, Gaborone. Truth be told, I had no desire to spend much time there and nothing specific to visit. However, I had to cut the leg to my next destination in half, in order to avoid a ridiculously long drive. The next morning, I left early and headed for the Molopo border post.

I parked my car in front of the Botswana Customs building and went in. In this region of the World, one always has to visit the Immigration Department, the Customs Department, and sometimes the National Police, both upon entering and exiting the country. After talking to all concerned and filling all the required paperwork, the Botswana authorities gave me a piece of paper and told me to give it to the person at the gate. So far, very typical. The gatekeeper basically checks that paper to make sure you did go to the places you were supposed to go to.

I got in my car and started driving very slowly, looking for the gate. I saw a lot of things that could have been gates. Little sheds with people in or out of uniform, more people in uniform sitting in the shade of a tree, gates/sheds/buildings with nobody in them. There were lots of people around in different uniforms, but it certainly wasn’t clear what they were doing. In fact, if they were doing anything at all, it was far from apparent. I flashed the little paper to a few of them and they just waved me forward. I drove around a line of parked trucks, a few curbs, and then I saw a group of policemen who were surprisingly standing up, as opposed to sitting in the shade of a tree. I pulled down the window and asked them where I was supposed to give the Botswana paper. “You can keep it, just go”. I proceeded towards the South African border post.

In some places, there is a significant distance between countries’ border posts, with a sort of no man’s land in between. I wasn’t surprised at first, but after several hundred meters, I started finding it strange. Hundred of meters then turned into a couple of kilometres, so I thought the border might be in one of the shared National Parks, with border posts on either end. I had never seen that, but it was the only explanation that came to mind. Then, I saw a few houses. Now, nobody lives between borders so I stopped the car and asked a passing villager a question I had never asked anyone in my life.

“Excuse me Sir, what country is this?”

Looking very puzzled, he answered: “South Africa”.

I was stunned! In a country with critical problems of weapons, drugs, stolen diamonds and all sorts of other traffic, as well as a huge influx of illegal immigrants, I had driven right through a border post with at least 30 cops, illegally, BY ACCIDENT!

Now, as amusing as that might have seemed, I was very conscious that South Africa has a centralized and computerized immigration database. I could perhaps invent a story about the immigration agent having forgotten to put the entry stamp in my passport, put I would have no way of explaining to the authorities at the Johannesburg airport why my passport had never been “scanned in” and thus, why I was in South Africa. This could mean serious problems, and the corrupt officials I would have to bribe at South Africa’s biggest airport might be of a much higher rank  – and therefore price – than lowly border cops in a remote part of the country. So, I decided to go back even though I might get in trouble.

I figured the last cop to wave me through was ultimately the one to blame and could possibly even get in trouble himself. Therefore, he might be willing to help fix the problem in a quiet manner. I found him and tried to talk to him discreetly.

– “When I showed you this paper, you told me to drive through.”

– “Yeah, that’s the Botswana paper, you can keep it.”

– “But I haven’t gone through any South African controls!”

– “You didn’t go through immigration?”

– “No immigration, no nothing!”

– (Speaking as if this was the most uninteresting conversation of the day) “Oh, well you have to go.”

– “But where is it?!?”

– “It’s the building with the red roof.”

– “Thanks.”

I drove back, parked my car and found the building. The road to it was fenced off, with a big arrow pointing right. Of course, the first time around, I turned right. What I didn’t now was that the arrow actually means “stop your car, walk through the opening in the fence, go to the building with the red roof, do all the paperwork, get back in your car and then turn right”. Obvious, really.

I went through Immigration and gave Customs the paper they had made me fill when I left the country at the Namibian border. There, I had been told to register all my expensive belongings with a serial code so I wouldn’t be suspected of importing them when I re-entered the country (computer, camera, etc). The Customs lady had no idea what it was. She asked around and since nobody seemed to know, she put a random stamp on it and gave it back to me.

I got back to my car and as I was about to drive away, a police sergeant stopped me and gave me the royal treatment: passport, immigration paper, drivers license, letter from the car rental agency allowing the border crossing, everything. He was obviously trying to find something wrong so he could threaten me with a large fine which could be forgotten for a smaller bribe, but I was totally above board. He then asked me if I had any Canadian money, as he was curious to see what it looked like. I did, stashed with hundreds of US$ which I was certainly not going to pull out in front of a South African cop, so I lied.

I had pulled out my wallet to get my drivers’ license, and I had a few Namibian dollars sticking out. He asked me if I was going to use them, because if not, he could. I said I was going to change them. I guess he then ran out of options, so he just went for it:

– “So, are you going to give me a tip?”

– “Hum… no.”

– “But it’s hot, I want to buy a cold drink.”

I daydreamed for a second about doing South Africa a favour by running him over with my car, took a deep breath and firmly said:

– “No, that would not be a good idea.”

– “… [silence] … Botswana’s that way.”

– “I’m going to South Africa.”

– “Oh, well you’re gonna have to turn your car around.”

– “I know.”

I drove off. The sad thing is that none of the South Africans I told the story to were particularly surprised, either by the corruption or the abject incompetence. Thinking of all the corruption stories I had heard both from people I met and by listening to call-in radio shows during my road trip, I don’t now why I was surprised myself. Maybe because I had not experienced it so far. Of course, that was the first time I spoke to a South African cop with no witnesses around. Putting it that way, I guess the bribe request was 1 in 1, or 100% corrupt.

It is sad to see a country like South Africa gradually slide into ever increasing levels of corruption. The stories I heard were pathetic. Things like high level Government jobs for professionals going to ANC cronies who don’t know the first thing about how to do them, but it doesn’t matter, as they just use a portion of their salary to subcontract the hard parts of the job. Sadder still is the fact that things will obviously get progressively worse in any foreseeable future, as there is no politically credible alternative to the ruling ANC. Of course, this doesn’t mean there is anything intrinsically wrong with the ANC (I certainly wouldn’t be one to know as an uninformed outside observer). But any party in Government for 2 decades, with no threat whatsoever to it’s hold on power, would become corrupt, in any country. It’s only a question of how corrupt.

When people in Canada (and the US) complain and loose interest in politics because they have only two real parties to choose from, they have no idea how lucky they are not to have only one. When I casually mentioned I came from Canada, on two separate occasions white South Africans told me they were considering moving to Canada “if things got bad” (i.e. if South Africa turned into Zimbabwe). I certainly hope it never gets to that.


The Makgadikgadi Salt Pans; where the Germans go to make noise.

The Makgadikgadi pans are a 12,000 square km network of dried up lakes. According to Lonelyplanet, Salar de Unyuni, in Bolivia, is the largest salt pan in the World, but the three pans of the Makgadikgadi, combined, are bigger. The whole area use to be a gigantic lake, which dried up around 10,000 years ago due to climate changes caused by a distant ancestor of Al Gore.

There are different routes into the pans, and I chose to drive to the small town of Nata and see the Sowa pan. Sowa means salt in the language of the San people (better known as Bushmen, but today, that’s like calling Inuits Eskimos).


It gets very hot in this area and, like in Etosha, animals seeks what little shade they can find. However, this was the first time I saw insects hiding in the shade. These very large butterflies were at the entrance to the lodge where I was camping. They also flapped outside my tent as if they were dying and turned out to be noisy and more disgusting than beautiful from up-close.


I would have loved to just go driving on the pan by myself, but part of the road required a 4×4, so I went on a sunset guided tour organized by the lodge. The guide was very interesting and I learned all sorts of random things. For instance, the winds in this part of Botswana almost always come from the East. So, if you need a compass, look for a tree. The nests are always on the West side!


The National Park where the pan is located also has vast areas of pasture. Many birds, including ostriches, and grazing animals such as these buffalos roam around freely inside, but the park is fenced.


For a few seconds, I looked at these cows as if they were perfectly normal, and then it hit me: wild cows?!? I asked the guide what they were doing in a game reserve. As it turns out, developers want to build a big resort in the area (possibly the South African chain Protea, I’m not sure). Right now, only small lodges operate there. Local opinion is divided, but for some reason, farmers are opposed, so they breach the park fences and let their cows in. I didn’t understand how that affects whom, why, in what way and for what purpose, but there you have it, cows in a park. Too bad there are no lions; it would have been quite the show! In the background of the picture, you can see the beginning of the salt flats.


The grounds of the pan is a mixture of mud and salt. During the rainy season, it gets covered by a thin layer of water and a huge number of water birds flock to the area. However, this year the rainy season was late. It had only rained for a few hours in several months and, according to our guide, the flamingos had come and gone without waiting for the rain.


Even if I had had a 4×4, I would have thought twice before heading out on the flats. The area is enormous, remote, and unforgiving. Your vehicle can get bogged in wet salt, you can easily get disoriented, and the conditions are harsh to say the least. Travel in convoy is much safer.

Baby flamingos often learn of the harsh nature of the place the hard way. Unlike other species, flamingos don’t care that well for their young. When the adults feel it’s time to move on from the pans, they go. If the young can follow, good, of not, too bad. Youngsters left behind soon get thirsty and start running madly towards the mirages. Once they get there and find no water, they look back and see the mirage the other way. They start running like crazy again. Very soon, they die of exhaustion. Quite sad.


While I am sure there are all sorts of insects and things living on the pan, to the untrained eye, it was lifeless. There were no birds and no wind. I thought this might have been one of the most quiet places I had ever been to, were it not for the German tourists joking around while chugging beers at sunset. I moved away until the noise died down a bit and enjoyed the beautifully desolate scenery by myself.


Just before sunset, I just laid down  on the ground and took pictures. I wish I could have spent the night there. It feels like having your very own planet!


Etosha to Maun: accelerating the road trip.

As is often the case in long-term travel, my plans changed significantly as I went along. I was going to spend a good part of my road trip in Botswana, but ended-up staying much longer in Namibia. Also, the friends I made in Namibia were volunteering in Zambia, and I was heading there anyways, so I bought a ticket 2 days earlier than planned, to make it in time for a birthday dinner. All this meant that my road trip through Botswana became a “drive to get to Johannesburg in time” experience.


The biggest change in scenery came when I crossed the Namibian Redline. This line is designed to control foot-and-mouth disease and has been in place since the 1960’s. Essentially, animals South of the line can be sold on international markets, and animals to the North cannot be sold anywhere outside the Northern zone. This causes a massive change in human demographics as you cross the line. The South is covered in massive, never ending pasture where you occasionally catch sight of a large scale raising or farming complex. People are a rare sight. The North is the opposite, and this changes right at the line. As soon as you cross the Redline – which is very heavily guarded by numerous policemen and soldiers inspecting every vehicle for meat products, the road becomes lined with small villages like this one, full of people living on subsistence agriculture and cattle raising. It is very poor, but is the densest populated area of Namibia. To add to the political complexity, the North is nearly 100% Black, while almost all the commercial farms of the South are owned by White Namibians, who form 13% of the country’s population.

I was surprised to have to exit my car and get my suitcase thoroughly inspected. I assumed that, like at many other control points, I would be the “victim” of profiling and, as an obvious tourist, simply waved through. I jokingly told the policeman going through my things: “You’re not going to find any animals in there”. He seriously answered: “I’m not looking for animals, I’m looking for drugs”. Sadly for him, I had none, having just transferred my crates of opium at the Walvis Bay port.

I have always been interested in discovering new foods and drinks as I travel around the World. However, on a 5000 to 6000 km road trip, what I really wished for was a Starbucks! None of the countries in Southern Africa have a tradition of coffee drinking. Of course, you’ll find a good cafe downtown Cape Town, but elsewhere, you are likely to be told they do not have coffee, or, if you are lucky, they will serve you instant coffee. The only place I found that would give me a filter coffee in a paper cup to go, was the fast food chain Wimpy. It’s like a Burger King and the coffee is not very good, but it’s the least worst I could find.


Since I almost never eat in fast food places at home, it’s quite ironic that I would plan legs in my GPS based on the location of the next Wimpy (they are also never far from gas stations). I would get my coffee fix and some gas. Once, I got a breakfast sandwich, drove off, but then decided to stop to eat it on the side of the road, as it was getting messy. I was struck by the contrast between a village of subsistence farmers and my fast-food outlet bag. Not my first or my last such clash of Worlds…

Before entering Botswana, I drove into the Caprivi Strip, a strange finger-shaped territory, created for some some colonial reason I am sure, which protrudes East of Namibia and shares borders with Angola and Botswana, all the way to Zambia. I then turned South and headed into the Okavango Panhandle. Just before the Botswana border, I stopped at a riverside lodge and camped there. The owners had quite the sense of humour.




The river was full of hippos. I’m quite certain this was the first time I saw them out in the wild. I got to be quite up-close and personal.


In fact, if you look up from the inverted “V” at the back of my tent, just over the bushes, you can see a hippo in the river. I woke up to the sounds of hippos “hippoing”, or whatever it is they do! In case you are my mother – I mean in case you are worried – there was no danger. True, hippos are one of the biggest killers of men in Africa. I heard if you accidentally get between them and the water, they freak-out are trample you to death before heading back to the water. However in this area, they only feed on one side of the river. You can perhaps make-out a sharp drop behind my tent. The riverside is flat on the other side, but there is a “cliff” of about 2-3 m on this side. Hippos can move faster than they look capable of, but they are just as good at climbing as one would guess based on their shape.


Before sunrise, in front of my tent, listening to the sounds of hippos. And that was the end of my brief stopover in the Caprivi Strip before I headed into Botswana.


Driving in Botswana is much less exciting than in Namibia. While the distances are great in Namibia, if you’ve seen my posts from there, you know how incredible the landscapes can be. In much of North and West Botswana, the landscape is flat. To reduce cases of impacts with animals, they cut down the vegetation for 20 m on either side of the road. So you get a bit of grass on both sides, and then trees, for hundreds of kilometres. As interesting as highway 20 between Montreal and Quebec. Although, you do get some sights you wouldn’t get in North America, such as this very unique way of using a tractor-trailer (without the actual trailer!) to carry a car. Once in a while, you also get some cool wildlife along the road.



A few hours later, I got to Maun, known as the “Gateway to the Okavango Delta”. There isn’t much to Maun. For most tourists, it is the place they go through to fly to a luxury lodge or go on a traditional dug-out canoe trip. I won’t beat around the bush, I did neither. A little strange I will admit. Like staying at a Niagara Falls hotel but not actually going to the Falls.

The Okavango experience is not so much about wildlife (certainly nothing like Etosha), but more about the serene experience of gliding along the river in a dug out canoe. I looked at some pictures online. Water, trees, bugs, humid, $200/day because I am doing it alone. No. I spent a couple of days taking care of administrative stuff, which piles-up when traveling full-time, and headed for the kind of serenity I like, salt pans…

Of note in Maun. I walked into an obvious tourist trap; a Western-looking, aeronautical-themed restaurant in front of the airport. I just didn’t care, I wanted food, now. It turned out to be awesome! Lots of local style game meat stews, veggy lasagnas and other surprises. I ate most of my meals there and the barmaid set me up with a local SIM card. She even tested it by calling her own cell. Later, I thought I might have been a little too friendly with her when she called me! It turns out she’d forgotten about the test and thought she had a missed call. If you’re ever in Maun, here are the directions to the restaurant: get out of airport, cross street.

Also of note in Maun. I drove through many crazy roads with the little Kia Picanto. The light weight and narrow wheels were fine on harsh, pointy stone roads and I never got a flat. The one thing I knew it could never do is sand roads. Once, I turned on a side road to go to a place and, seeing the sand, parked and walked a kilometre. Downtown Maun, the last thing I was thinking of was off-road worthiness. Sure enough, I turned in a long driveway and got caught in the sand, 50 m from the main highway! Fortunately, it was my lucky day. A guy in a 4×4 with chains in the back saw me get stuck. The whole ordeal lasted less than 5 minutes.


Camping in Etosha National Park

Etosha National Park was established by the Germans in 1907 and is today one of the main attractions in Namibia. There are numerous lodges of varying levels of luxury around the entrances, but only three Government-run establishments inside the park. I decided to camp there for 3 days, including one night with the friends I had met in Swakopmund. We had a few drinks and our improvised BBQ almost set fire to the plains, but in the end all was good. It’s actually fairly expensive camping, but you get access to all the lodge’s services (pool, bar, restaurant, etc).

On the first morning, I went on an organized game drive. You can drive your own vehicle in the park, but I figured a guide on the first day would be a good idea (and official vehicles are the only ones allowed to leave the camps in darkness). Like in my post about the sand dunes of Sossusvlei, I don’t have much to say about Etosha, so I hope you enjoy the pictures.


I like everything about sunrises, except the schedule.


We were quite lucky and quickly stumbled upon 3 juvenile male lions. This one seemed quite curious about us…


…but staying awake seemed so hard…


…and then he was gone.


His friend was just as curious…


…and just as tired.


The last one seemed a little more alert, possibly because he had recently been injured (a nasty gash on his tail).


A while later, we saw this massive female, as she was watching a lunch go by.


She gave up without trying. Our guide guessed that the morning was getting too hot for hunting, and he parked our vehicle over a culvert in the road.


He was right; she headed straight for the culvert to take some cover from the sun, and we got up close and personal – but not too much!


Our guide was very good at spotting small and distant animals but incredibly, he drove right passed this giraffe on the side of the road and had to back-up so we could take a look at it!


Okaukuejo, the easternmost camp, is very famous for its waterhole. You can walk to it from your chalet (or tent), and it is floodlit at night. A wire obstacle and fences make it impossible for most animals to enter the camp. It’s very funny how giraffes have to spread their front legs to drink. If not, they can’t reach the water. Unfortunately, without using a tripod, these pictures pushed the technical envelope a bit and are not that crisp.



Zebras are often found at the waterhole, and they walk around doing what zebras do. However, it’s really cool when you manage to catch them as soon as they arrive, because at that moment, they are all doing the same thing, drinking.


A couple of young male elephants arriving.


I am not a zoologist, but I am pretty certain elephants don’t eat zebras. Nevertheless, zebras make way for the giants and they don’t hang around very long.


Elephants suck up water in their trunk and then blow it in their mouth. Elephant trunks are pretty amazing things, but as a human, I am glad that my survival never depends on blowing my nose in my mouth.


Beautiful sunset at the waterhole, but without a single animal in sight.


Soon, an elephant showed up.


And then, all the elephants!


I had never seen, before or after, more than one or two lone juvenile males. Now, there were over 35 of them, with the big dominant bulls, their females and the little ones in tow. It was quite amazing. I pity the folks who went to the bar after seeing there was nothing there at sunset!


Covering themselves with dirt. At that point you can see the floodlight has been turned on.


Some impalas drinking. Both males and females have horns, but the females have the thin ones. It looks like one is always keeping an eye out for lions.


Impalas are all over Southern Africa, but this is a black-faced impala, endemic to the region.



A blue wildebeest grazing.


They may not be as spectacular as lions, but the park is full of birds.


Locals call this angry-looking bird the “flying banana”!




On the third day, I drove about 120 km across the entire park. It got quite hot during the day and I saw a lot of animals, like these impalas and birds, looking for any shade they could find.


Close to the pan. The pan is an immense area of salt coated dry mud. Not much living there, except on the rare occasion when it gets covered by a thin coat of water.


Part of “2001: A Space Odyssey” was filmed here. Are you surprised?


If you look at the horizon, you can see this picture captures the mirage in the distance, and it’s not obvious where the sky starts!


The pan at sunset.


And finally, my best shot of the week. The autofocus lens captured that spider web just the way I wanted!

And that’s all for Etosha!


Enjoying “traditional” Namibian celebrations…

I arrived in Windhoek on a date that was by no means random and I moved in an obscure airport hotel because of its location, which was also not random. I was two blocks away and it was half a day before one of the biggest parties in Namibia…



Years ago, I traveled to Macau expecting an intriguing mix of Portuguese and Chinese cultures. I found a Chinese city with Portuguese street names. But in Namibia, despite Germany having lost the colony a century ago, German is very alive and present.  I was told about 5% of Namibians have German as a first language, which means it is the first language of about 40% of white people there (Afrikaans being the most common).


The party started Friday, with the owner of a major local brewery opening the first barrel of that year’s brew and thus opening Oktoberfest (or something like that, my German is not that great). It’s quite a large party, with three tents as large as the one in the first picture, plus outdoor areas. The band is straight from Munich and plays at the Oktoberfest there every year. I’m not sure if there is a deep meaning to the party, but from what I could tell, it’s all about:


Looking and acting more German than the Germans.


Eating sausages and sauerkraut.


Drinking a lot of beer, for most people (this one was for me!).


And drinking too much beer, for some! I must admit I had a certain quantity myself (people who know me will be shocked). I was happy I did not loose or destroy my camera, but I must say I am very disappointed with the poor quality of my pictures! In my defence, I will say that I was far from being the drunkest person there. This is what happened when I gave my camera to someone so he could take a picture of me and a new friend.


Pulitzer Prize material for sure!


This local guy , who’s name I forgot, was great fun and introduced me to all sorts of people whose names I also forgot. Including several guys in Lederhosen, whom I thought I had taken pictures of, but evidently, I didn’t.


I like Namibia because African women are very friendly.

[OK, so maybe this was staged by my drunk friend in the previous picture and I don’t even know who these girls are, but that’s why reality is so overrated]


Around 1:30 am, I had enough and I walked the short distance to the hotel. There, I met my lodge neighbors, three retired South African Army majors, who at almost 2 am, were starting to cook this gigantic piece of meat on their home-made braii (South African BBQ). The next morning, at around 10, I got up and they had just finished cooking breakfast on the braii, which they were washing down with rum and coke! Hard core, really, really hard core.


The next day, the “sport” competitions were held. Guys cut trees in pairs with a big saw and women lifted as many beer mugs as they could. Apart from brute strength, the art is in setting them up properly.


Trying for 15… and failing. Note these are not pints, but much bigger. Possibly a full litre.


Success with 16! You might note that there aren’t too many people around. This is because I took pictures during the preliminary rounds. Eventually, an older lady lifted 17 or 18, but by then there was a big crowd around them, and I couldn’t get a descent shot, mainly because the journalists and pro photographers were in my way.

I decided not to push my luck with the camera and returned it to the hotel. I went back for a few pints and sausages, but I was a little beat by the daytime sun and the previous day’s events, so I made it “home” a little earlier. All and all, an incredible party. If I had been magically transported there on Friday night and asked which country I thought I was in, I’m not sure Namibia would have been in the first 50 guesses!


More sand dunes, salty flamingos and the Skeleton Coast.

Swakopmund, Namibia’s second largest city, is located on the Southern Atlantic Coast. It is the centre of “active” tourism in Namibia, with skydiving, quad biking and all manners of active pursuits on offer. Due to air currents from the ocean, it is almost always engulfed in misty clouds. The clouds don’t move; they form at sea and go inland a little bit, or a lot, but they stay on the coast. Sometimes they can be quite high and sometimes, such as in this picture of the dock, they can be at ground level.


While it may not seem like it, there is a very nice high-end seafood restaurant at the end of the dock. I went there with a British/Australian couple I had met at my lodge. We decided to go there upon the recommendations of the owner and I literally dropped my suitcase and left. I was still wearing the clothes I had worn to visit and drive from Sossusvlei. Needless to say, I was grossly underdressed and most other patrons probably did not have sand in their ears.


While I am happy to discover new foods, drinks and habits while travelling abroad, for a road trip a nice big coffee in a paper cup is a very desirable thing. Unfortunately, Southern Africans are not, for the most part, big coffee drinkers. I was very happy to find this Starbucks in Swakopmund. Hey, wait a second…


Swakopmund is pretty slow paced and relax. I’m not sure how one manages to flip a car on a slow moving downtown street, but evidently, it can be done. Luckily, nobody was hurt.


On the second day, I decided to try sandboarding with the couple I had just met. I was a little skeptical the morning of, as it looked like it was going to rain hard. The guide assured us that in Swakopmund, it always looks like it’s going to rain, but it rarely does. And a few kilometres inland, it almost never does. We went on a very short drive and I took this picture from the top of a dune, facing the city. Sure enough, the weather inland was fine and the city was completely hidden by the clouds.


Looking towards the South, one sees the beautiful inland blue sky on the left and the permanent clouds of the coast on the right. During the few days I was there, it never changed. The sharp black shadows on the dunes are streaks of powdered metallic ore. You can pick it up using a magnet; which is quite neat.


The railroad in the background.


And the local desert wildlife.


Sandboarding is a fairly silly activity which consists in climbing up a sand dune and sliding down on a piece of waxed masonite. As it turns out, it is a lot more fun than one would think, and a lot faster. The guides had brought a speed gun and on my fastest ride, I peaked at 68 km/h. I even got a little bit of air on a ridge, but it’s good not to get too much, as you do land on your chest after all. Going down on actual snowboards is also possible, but more technical. If I lived there and went every week-end, the “snowboard” would be the way to go, but for half a day the masonite board was more fun.


Early the next morning, I headed for the town of Walvis Bay, just south of Swakopmund. The town operates the biggest port between South Africa and Angola. There is a large lagoon south of town, from which I took this picture shortly after sunrise.


The lagoon is populated by vast numbers of flamingos. Unfortunately, because it is shallow all the way across, the flamingos don’t have to come near the shore to feed, so you only get to see most of them from a distance. They feed in a very peculiar way. They stomp their feet up and down to scare away small creatures who live under the sand. When the prey emerges from the sand to swim, walk or crawl away, they catch them with their beaks. I’ll try and post a video when I get time and bandwidth to do so.


The flamingos are not curious at all about humans and slowly start walking away as soon as they see you approaching. Because of that, I would estimate that 75% of my pictures that day are of flamingo butts!


This one flinched and flew away. They are beautiful birds in flight, but they didn’t fly much when I was there.


Pretty much the only flamingo I managed to catch from the side.


Apart from flamingos, the area around Walvis Bay houses Namibia’s largest producer of salt. I guess the two share a love for large flat basins of water.


In fact, vast areas of land are artificially walled in and flooded with sea water. The water is then allowed to evaporate and the salt is then collected.




This mine produces 90% of the salt consumed in South Africa.



The artificial nature of this landscape is very unusual. A slight difference in elevation or salt production cycle determines if an area is covered by land or sea. When I took this picture, my GPS was telling me I had driven about 2 km into the ocean!


On my final day on the coast, I headed north of Swakopmund, into one of the most desolate place on Earth. Unlike the diamond regions in the South, the main reason why you would be prohibited from entering here is to keep you from killing yourself. The area is known as the Skeleton Coast, from the large number of dead whales found there in the past. It has also seen its share of shipwrecks and human skeletons. It is one of the most inhospitable region of the World and has never been inhabited. The Coast is constantly beaten by brutal weather, fog, sandstorms and there is no fresh water anywhere.


Many of the ships who fell victim to the weather have now been dismantled. This one was in the process of being salvaged. I would have ignored the warning and gone a little closer, but they were actually working on it at that very moment and I could see a guard near the entrance of the path, so this is as far as I got.


The salt road of the Skeleton Coast. According to my GPS, I should have been going about 15-20 km/h on this “F grade road”. In fact, I was going over 100 km/h. Usually, it is nicer than most paved roads, but the odd time it rains, it gets very slippery. If you drive about 80 km further north, you get to the harshest part of the coast, where the salt road is flanked on one side by the stormy South Atlantic Ocean and on the other by massive sand dunes. Unfortunately, I didn’t really have the time to go and come back, and I couldn’t drive through to my next destination, as a few segments of the inland road required a 4×4.


The Skeleton Coast also does a lot of salt mining. When large salt crystals are found (which have no specific commercial value), mine employees put them on little tables on the side of the road for passing tourists to buy on an honour system. The tables are spread over several kilometres but towards the end of the afternoon, I did see 2 women walk along checking the little money boxes. Most of the vehicles driving by are travelling between Swakopmund and various fishing spots along the coast.


An important environmental concern in the area pertains to the damage caused by vehicles driving off-road. The terrain is perfect to take your 4×4 for a spin, but it causes severe damage to the very limited vegetation that grows there. Lichen only grows when it rains, and then only a few by a few millimetres a year. A passing 4×4 can easily destroy a decade of growth and signs, fences and gates try to enforce the no off-road driving policy everywhere lichen fields are found. Nevertheless, 4×4 tracks are quite pervasive when you look around. After all, in this sparsely populated and isolated area, the police presence is quite light (i.e. I saw none).


Around a place called Cape Cross, there is a large colony of seals. These animals smell so bad I was afraid I would suffer permanent brain damage from smelling them. They also produce these horrible sounds and are, overall, quite disgusting. Their activities, other than fishing, are quite predictable.


Young males play fight.


And throw each other off the rocks.


Females do nothing.


Reproducing males fight for real, constantly. They must always be on alert to ensure another male doesn’t try to impregnate one of their females (I don’t think the females have much say in the matter). This means being a few centimetres too close is a great offence and will result in a fight until one of them backs off.


I can see five adult males in this picture. Unless they were fighting, I never saw two of them in close proximity . On the contrary, they are very evenly spread along the beach. I would have observed them longer, but I was afraid their smell would cause the paint to peel off my rental car, so I drove back to Swakopmund. The next day, I headed to the capital, Windhoek, for a cultural event not to be missed.

The internet cafe is closing in a minute and I don’t have time to read what I wrote. Sorry for any typos, I’ll edit in the morning if it’s a catastrophe!