by Larry and Judi Fenson

April 2009 Trip to Namibia
e were in the final countdown for our April 5 departure to Madagascar when we suddenly had to revamp our plans. Madagascar was on the verge of a coup. For several weeks we had closely followed BBC and Reuter’s news reports as events unfolded, growing increasingly concerned as to whether this trip was going to happen. Then the US State Department upped the severity of its warning from “Travel only if essential” to “Don’t go” and began evacuating non-essential embassy personnel and family members. The Peace Corps began pulling out all workers. That was enough for us. We reluctantly concluded we should postpone our visit.

There was no terrorism or threats to foreigners, just a political test of wills between the deposed young mayor of the capital city and the democratically elected president - who was forced to resign when the army threw its support to the young firebrand. While the violence was mostly limited to demonstrations around the presidential palace, there was always the very real possibility that we could get stranded once there if protesters shut down the international airport or fuel supplies were cut off. Judi still wanted to go. Our travel provider (Ken, the owner of 2Afrika in New York) basically refused to cooperate, saying he did not want to put us in harm’s way. He would have had to provide vouchers, etc.

With a lot of last-minute changes, we were able to transform our Madagascar itinerary into a trip to Namibia, another place at the top of our wish list. It turned out to be one of our best trips, offering the kinds of experiences we enjoy most.

To start with, we had a good vehicle (year old Land Rover) and a great guide/driver. Also, we were almost always in wide open remote areas (the kind of terrain we most enjoy on trips) on empty roads, some paved, some gravel, some dirt, but always well-maintained. Nonetheless, we had 2 flat tires - very common on those types of roads. We carried 2 spares so we always had a second backup.

Namibia, by the way, is almost twice the size of California but has only 2 million people compared with California’s 37 million. It is the second least populated country in the world

We were surprised at how un-third-world Namibia is. It is, in fact, probably Africa’s third richest country after South Africa and Botswana. Its economy centers around mining, agriculture, fishing and tourism – in that order. The towns and villages are very clean and we saw no poverty. We were able to have salads (a real rarity in our travels) and could even drink the water at the lodges.

We were able to see two major deserts – the Kalahari with its deep red sand and abundant wildlife and the Namib with its classic wind- sculpted dunes.

We had a little excitement during an early morning walk in the Kalahari, encountering a 5 to 6 foot long cape cobra. It was in a coiled striking position when our guide Nico shouted “Stop!” It was in some high grass but then obliged us by slithering across the path, fully revealing itself.

We saw a wide range of animal life including lots of different hoofed species such as oryx, kudu, springbok, elan, impala, antelope, mountain zebras and common zebras, wildebeests, hartebeests, dikdiks, steenboks, blackboks, gemsboks and blesboks and yes, giraffes! as well as elephants, meerkats, jackals, caracals, ostriches, flamingoes, warthogs, mongoose, monitor lizards, chameleons, baboons and some super-sized (mostly harmless) bugs, e.g., 2-inch long armored crickets and 3-inch long flying beetles. One of the latter landed on Larry’s face when we were out for an evening drive in an open vehicle in the Kalahari.

We saw the sunrise almost every morning and the sunset every evening. Sunsets were particularly beautiful. Most of the lodges offered sundowners which were late afternoon game drives, reaching a viewpoint just before sunset. While the sun was setting, tables and chairs were set up and hors d’oeuvres and drinks were served.

We saw more bird species than we have ever seen in the Amazon, partly because the sparse vegetation does not conceal the birds like in the jungle and partly because our guide was a phenomenal spotter/tracker. We saw some majestic eagle species, falcons, hawks and other birds of prey, large ground-dwellers such as secretary birds and guinea fowl, along with owls, marabou storks, bee-eaters, hornbills, plovers, and a really colorful assortment of other birds that live off the land (such as the lilac-breasted roller) as well as some that depend on the presence of water, such as pelicans and cormorants.

Our guide Nico was exceptional. Nico was raised in the Kalahari Desert region in a small village with dirt floors and no electricity. He never had shoes. But he is extremely smart, did quite well in high school and earned a college degree with distinction. He is hoping to next complete the equivalent of a masters program in guiding/tourism. If so, he would be one of only a handful of guides with such credentials in the whole country. Nico’s spotting and tracking skills are truly impressive.

At one point, we were driving along a dirt road at about 50 miles per hour when Nico stopped and backed up to show us the trail of a python that had recently crossed the road. He estimated the width of the snake at maybe 8 inches. On another day, he tracked down by vehicle a large desert bull elephant that had been reported in the area.

All of the lodges were great. The staffs could not have been more friendly and accommodating. Some had “Out of Africa” charm. Many were in stunning settings.

Several were like something out of a movie. One in fact did serve as a movie setting. Most nights we dined under the stars. Because there was so little light around, the night sky was ablaze with stars. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen the Milky Way but it was clearly visible each night, as was the Southern Cross.

Our meals were included in our package and were quite distinctive, typically including game from ranches in Namibia and South Africa. We sampled all kinds, including oryx, kudu, impala, zebra, springbok and élan as well as ostrich and warthog.

We also were very lucky to be able to visit a traditional Himba village. This was one of the trip highlights. The Himba are a highly distinctive nomadic people; the women color their bodies and their hair with a red ochre/butter mixture, creating a dramatic and beautiful appearance. What a rare treat. A National Geographic quality experience. The next day, as we departed the area, we stopped at a modern grocery store in a small town. At the meat counter amidst Namibians in western dress were 2 adolescent Himba girls in native attire, very striking in contrast to their plainly- attired fellow customers.

Adding to the diversity of our itinerary was Twyfelfontein, a World Heritage site preserving prehistoric Bushmen rock engravings, dating back 2,000 - 5,000 years.

The setting is super scenic with dramatic rock formations and would be well worth a visit even if there was no rock art.

A short distance away is Organ Pipes Canyon. The dramatic rock formations formed 120 million years ago are reminiscent of Devil’s Postpile National Monument in Wyoming.

Late the same afternoon, we set off to find a large bull elephant that had been spotted earlier in the day. We learned from the workers at a nearby service station where we picked up our repaired spare tire that the elephant had passed by about 30 minutes earlier. Nico had a good idea of where he was headed and did an impressive job of tracking him down.

Finally, we spent two days at Etosha National Park, one of Africa’s premier game reserves.

A large illuminated watering hole near our lodge offered great opportunities for viewing wildlife up close day and night.

This trip was superbly arranged by and

We are already planning a return trip to Namibia to visit areas we were not able to see this time. The return trip would include 2 days in a Bushmen village. The Bushmen are one of the groups who speak a click language. Their culture, like so many traditional cultures, is fast disappearing.

We would also visit the Caprivi region which borders Botswana. This watery area contains a number of villages of interest. caprivi.htm

We’ll end the trip with a few days in Botswana near Chobe combined with a trip to Victoria Falls in Zambia.

We still very much want to visit Madagascar but, at present, conditions are still quite unstable there. Madagascar has been booted out of the Southern African Union for its flagrant disregard of the democratic process and no one can predict when stability might return. Maybe by 2011...


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