This is part 12 of my series exploring my March 2017 trip to South Africa and Namibia, which started here.
You could easily spend several weeks in Namibia, with a range of terrains, suitable for safari, watersports, adventure sports, and a range of exploration. I didn’t have a long time, though, as I was really just squeezing in my stay between Cape Town and Johannesburg legs. I had no real flexibility on dates, so there was only one choice for my excursion, which worked out well – the Etosha Express 3-day tour run by Chameleon Safaris. It was a long and exhausting three days, and Etosha was not at all what I expected, but it was a well put-together trip, and very reasonably priced – about $500 including transport from Windhoek, up to Etosha, then down to Swakopmund, 2 nights’ accommodations, tour guide, admission fees, and food. Indeed, the only bad parts about the trip were out of Chameleon’s control: the weather and the people in my safari vehicle.
I got picked up at the Hilton at around 7am, along with 4 other passengers heading to the Chameleon Guesthouse, which is a hostel and also the main offices for the tour company. Apparently atypically, there were two vehicles (Timon and Pumbaa) going out that day for Chameleon’s Etosha safaris. Both vehicles were doing the exact same thing the first three days, but some passengers on each vehicle were doing different itineraries after Etosha and the drive to Swakopmund, including a 3 day, 4 day (adding a day in the Swakopmund area and returning to Windhoek), 6 day (adding in the sand dunes of Sossusvlei), and an 11 day (all over Namibia). I’m not sure how the vehicles were assigned, but the group on the other one seemed much more my speed, with friendlier people, Americans and Australians, and people around my age. My vehicle on the other hand consisted of a mother/daughter from London, two guys who had just graduated from high school in Germany, a single German girl in her early 20s who had become fast friends with a single Portuguese woman around my age, two Brazilian guys of indeterminate age who can be described as boorish and bearded, a young couple from Luxembourg who were an American woman and an Italian man, and Brigitte, a middle-aged single German woman who was my seat mate for the three days. Loaded up, we were on the way at 8:20.
The drive from Windhoek to Etosha is about 5 hours. Although the vehicle wasn’t air-conditioned, open windows kept it cool enough as we drove north. One pro of my vehicle as compared to the other was that we had a separate guide, Alvin, and a driver, Philip. The other vehicle had one person serving as both. I think he was a more experienced guide, but Philip was likely able to talk more while we were driving, and once in Etosha was able to spot wildlife from 360 degrees while Alvin drove. We made one stop on the way to Etosha, about 3 hours in, in the town of Otijiwarongo, where there was gas and restrooms, fast-food, and a huge supermarket. There were prepacked box lunches distributed en route, which were pretty filling, with a roll, hardboiled egg, couscous salad, apple, mixed nuts, and two granola bars. (Drinks were not supplied with any of the lunches.)
At around 2pm, we made it through the park gates and started our first game drive. A few words about Etosha game drives. One, it is not a jungle at all. Rather, it is flat with low grasses for the most part. It is also a very easy to park to self-drive, as the roads are pretty well-marked and maintained. Lots of people in the park were driving their own vehicles – sedans. I was also very glad I brought both binoculars and a real camera with a telephoto lens. Other than some of the small animals, the animals are fairly far from the vehicle. It is also a lot of sitting and long vehicle rides – so load up on anti-nausea pills and podcasts. I think it was my fattest part of the trip – counterintuitively, I had very little physical activity and ate a lot. I got a massage after the safari and the masseuse commented how sore my butt was and I must have been sitting for a long time.
I put together this video which shows a lot of the highlights of Etosha:
Unfortunately, I was there at the end of the rainy season, and the weather did not cooperate. It didn’t rain on our first drive, but in rainy weather the animals are harder to spot, since they don’t need to hunt out water from watering holes, and the elephants apparently don’t like walking in the mud. Indeed, I only ended up spotting one of the “big five” animals (though there aren’t any hippos in Etosha anyway). Several roads were also closed due to mud.
The vehicle had a pop-top that allowed for picture taking by standing up and peering out. On the first afternoon drive, we saw mostly small animals, including springboks and oryxes (gemsboks), members of the antelope family, and the national animals of South Africa and Namibia, respectively. There were also a number of birds, and the first of several giraffes and a white rhino.
By the end of the day, my bum was quite sore from sitting. But the worst thing about that day was that the Portuguese woman insisted on jumping up to take a picture at every moment, and paid no mind to anyone else being able to get a shot. She ruined several of my shots, and I was stuck with a view of her rear end for several hours. She also described every animal as “so cute.” We would be ready to move on to the next stop, but she would insist on 15 more pictures. And she kept asking about seeing a lion. So much that she would then start singing “Eeen da jungle, da mighty jungle, da lion sleeps tonight….” Repeatedly. Over the course of 3 days. Over and over.
At around 5:45pm, we got to the Halali Rest Camp, which is one of three Namibian government run rest camps in Etosha. A large portion of the camp is for RVs and for camping, and the rest of it is barracks-like rows of hotel rooms. I had paid $25 extra for a guaranteed single room for both nights, though I would have had one anyway since I was the only sole male passenger on the trip. The room was perfectly fine, better than rooms I had in places in Europe like Rovinj. There wasn’t a TV, but there was air conditioning, a mini-fridge, a comfortable bed with mosquito netting, and odd shaped towel animals. The bathroom was huge and new, with a stall shower which felt good after a long day. There were plenty of outlets in the room. There was Wi-Fi available with a voucher from the gift shop, but I didn’t bother.
Before dinner and after a rest, I checked out the main attraction of Halali (not the swimming pool, though that looked fine) – the “moonlit” watering hole. Unfortunately, the Brazilians (who would sometimes shout at the animals and shouted “Frango” at any bird), the Portuguese woman, and her friend, were there as well and ignoring the “Please be quiet” signs. To the extent that any animal was going to come despite the weather, that wasn’t going to happen. It was pretty, though.
Dinner that night was prepared by Philip and Alvin over barbeque grills (a “braai”) at a shelter in the camp. There was sausage, chicken, lamb chops, squash stuffed with corn, Greek salad, and a chocolate mousse dessert. This was a “limited participation” safari, which meant you wouldn’t be expected to do much set-up and cooking and such, but we were asked to wash our own dishes in pop-up sinks, and help with the serving and cooking ware. Almost everyone helped, but I could let you guess who didn’t. I read before bed and was asleep by 10, since breakfast was at 6:15 at the lodge restaurant. Breakfast was a hot buffet, complete with omelet station – a bit surprising, but certainly not bad.
By 7am, we were off for game drive number 2, which was the prettiest of the drives, between the sunrise and relatively clear skies, and a range of zebras, giraffes, rhinos, ostriches, and meerkats.
We were back at Halali at 9:40 for pack-up and check-out, and had snacks (cookies) for the drive to the Etosha Pan. I don’t know how to describe the pan, but it is a vast, salt pan- a 75 mile long dried lakebed unlike anything I’d ever seen.
We returned again to Halali and had some time to just do nothing before lunch of tuna salad, and then had our final game drive, which was almost completely rained out. The plan was to stop in Okaukuejo, the administrative center and closest thing to a “town” within Etosha, and climb the round clock tower there, but it was monsoonish and there was flooding by the time we got there.
The evening’s accommodation was just outside the park gates, at the Taleni Etosha Village, which was super-nice. It’s nowhere close to the luxury private lodges in other parts of Africa, but given it was described as “permanent tented accommodation,” I was not expecting a welcome drink and a large quasi-villa to myself. My luggage was driven to my room so I didn’t have to take it on the path from the reception area. The inside of the room felt like living in the Bombay Company or Pier 1, with a bed and a futon, as well as one of the biggest bathrooms I’ve ever seen.
Dinner that night was at the hotel restaurant. It was a buffet with two made to order stations – a stirfry noodle station that included chicken, beef, and kudu (an antelope) options, and a very popular “braii” station, where you could have zebra, oryx, hartebeest, eland, or lamb. I tried the zebra, and it was very tough – oryx was the better choice for me. Breakfast was similarly a large buffet, complete with omelet station.
We left Taleni at 7am, for a day that would take us south to Outjo and west through Damaraland and the Tsiseb Conservancy – a vast, arid, sparsely populated area that stretches to the Atlantic coast. It was a beautiful, but very long drive – about 3 hours – to our first stop. We stopped first at a craft “market” – a row of about 6 stalls of crafts being sold by members of the Herero tribe. There wasn’t really much interaction with them, and much of what they were selling was made in China, but the tribe is primarily pastoralist and is most recognizable for the very ornate wide hats and 19th century style dresses they wear.
Our second stop was with the Damara people, who had a less organized craft market, and wore a mix of tribal and modern western clothes, and had a ton of solar cells and random junk. This was our lunch stop, so we sat under one of the few trees while our guides prepared them. After lunch, the guides asked people from the trip to bring our leftover food to the local people, and had one guy distribute water to some of the small children – with a warning to make sure every child got the same amount. Apparently this happens every week, and as a sign of appreciation, they put on a little dance for us. It was a weird experience and I couldn’t tell how much of it was put on; one of the tribespeople videorecorded it on her own Iphone. But the tour participants were invited to join in and Brigitte was loving it. Alas I screwed up my attempt to video it, so you’ll just get the stills.
The last tribe we interacted with was the Himba people, who are a tribe that retains nearly all of their historic traditions and cultures, continuing to live like their ancestors, rejecting Western dress at all. They are recognizable from the clay they wrap their braids in, the red ochre cream they apply to their skin, and their very scant clothing. They are also known as hardcore bargainers, and a boy of about 8 or 9 was a master salesman himself at the craft stand. (If you want to take pictures, you put money in a tin; so I did.)
I would’ve liked to interact more and learn more about how these tribes live, but this was really just a drive-by. From the Himba, there was still another 90 minute drive to the coast; it was really interesting to watch the landscape change, though, from the dry grasses to sand dunes. We made two very quick stops once we got to the coast. The area north of Swakopmund on the Atlantic Ocean is referred to as the “Skeleton Coast,” because it has historically been where many ships have run aground and thousands of shipwrecks remain, going back to the 17th century! Our stop was at the far southern end of the area, and the shipwreck we visited, the Zeila, dated back only to 2008. We also stopped at one of the area’s lichen fields, which is supposedly cool because of how inhospitable the coast is to life. I just was ready to be out of the vehicle and at my hotel.
At around 4:30pm, we rolled into Swakopmund, and I was dropped at the lovely Strand Hotel; that will be my next post.
Overall, I am glad I did the Etosha Express safari. I’m glad I didn’t do anything longer, and I’m glad I got the opportunity to check out Swakopmund as well. But Etosha wasn’t as awe-inspiring as I’d hoped- perhaps the weather played a role. I definitely would like to see a more lush, jungle-type part of Africa, and get closer to wildlife. If Etosha is on your radar, though, I do recommend Chameleon Safaris. And feel free to ask any questions, as this barely touches on everything.