Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Namibian Roadtrip

So after Rob and I left Cara, we hopped on the 15 hour bus journey to Windhoek. Being a veteran of these bus journeys by now, I again got into my sleeping bag and slept just fine for most of the night with a spare seat beside me to stretch out. Poor Rob ended up sitting beside the window after a lady with a baby took the spare seat beside him. Window seats are not good for 15 hours when you're 6'5". We got to Windhoek at 7am and went for a nice big breakfast to cheer up Rob. Then we found a great place to rent vehicles that come with tents attached to the roof. They also supply all the camping equipment such as stoves, plates, cutlery, fridge etc. All we needed was food and we'd be self sufficient for the 8 days of camping and driving we'd planned.

We got lots of food and beers for the week and we were putting them into the car at the supermarket when disaster struck. Rob left his bag beside the car for 10 seconds while we were loading the car, and someone took it. They must have been lightening quick because we were there the whole time. He lost his phone, iPod, camera with 6000 photos on it (all from his trip around the world since early Feb, he had no backups), and most importantly his passport. Thankfully he still had his wallet on him

We had to call the police and they kindly took us to the tourist police station so we could file a report. Since there was no chance of him getting the bag back, it was purely for insurance purposes. Then we paid a visit to the British Embassy which was just around the corner so he could apply for a new passport.

Once that was all sorted we decided we wouldn't let the bastards ruin our trip anymore so we hit the road and made our way to the first campsite we wanted to check out, even though we'd get there in the dark.

Basically we spent the next 8 days looking at the map and figuring out where we'd like to go next. We drove over 2500km in total over the week. We first headed up towards Etosha Safari park where we spent 2 days checking out the wildlife. Then the west and south into Damaraland where both of us had spent time with EHRA as volunteers, before ending up in Swakopmund.

I won't bore you with the details of each day, I'll just point out the highlights.

- Our roof tent was super cool. It flattened down really nicely during the day and it took 2 mins to set up in the evening.
- Rob was obsessed by the fire. Every day he would light it and watch it intently, trying to find exactly the right wood to get it started and keep it going, funny to watch. Whatever floats your boat!
- Etosha was really cool. You can drive around the park yourself and spot the animals. I got to try out my new guiding skills and told Rob all about the animals and birds we saw. I'm surprised he didn't tell me to shut up even though I must have bored him to tears at some points. Thanks Rob! :)

- The views through the Grootberg pass were just stunning, no photos will ever do it justice. I'd definitely go back there and camp around there too. And to think it was something we just stumbled across.

- Often we'd determine what campsite we'd stay at that night depending on whether they had a tv or not so we could watch some world cup games. There was a really cool campsite with homemade cakes on offer but their neighbor 5km down the road had a tv. So long cakes, maybe next time!
- Our biggest arguments were about where to park the car each evening, usually fighting over 2 metres of a difference. Not bad I suppose.
- We found an internet cafe in Outjo, a town with a gas station and no visible shops but it was the fastes internet I've ever had in Africa, actually almost anywhere!

We ended up in Swakopmund and stayed a night with Dave, former EHRA coordinator and good friend, even though he'd just moved into his new apartment. We had a good boozy night out with him, Rachel and Joe and Doreen who had just arrived from NY the day before. Doreen was my drinking partner when I was in Namibia last year for a few months and I was so delighted to catch her before I left.

The following day we drove the car back to Windhoek to drop it off. About an hour into the journey (its one long road that goes through desert-like terrain for 4 hours), a car pulled up beside us and waved us down. We pulled over and saw that the roof tent was hanging off the hinges and about to fall off. Its super heavy and would have caused serious damage if it did fall. Thankfully the guys that waved us down were electricians and had tools to help us take it off completely and store it in the back. Close call! When we dropped the car off the rental people were very apologetic and said it was the make of the tent and it looked like wear and tear. We were just happy they didn't try to blame it on us.

I stayed one more night in Windhoek and said bye to Rob. I was on my way to Jo'burg to see a world cup game and then fly home to Ireland. On Wed morning I got up at 4.30 am to fly to Jo'burg. Tym, a fellow volunteer from Madagascar had a spare ticket to the Germany vs Ghana game. He met me at the airport and we made out way to Soccer City to watch the afternoon games. The stadium was the most modern stadium I've been to, and so clean. The atmosphere was the friendliest I've ever experienced at a sporting event. The whole evening was a blast and I wished I'd stuck around for more games. Thursday I spent my time at the hostel throwing out things not worth the flight back to Ireland that evening.

I was pretty happy that I used everything in my bag that I'd packed, the only thing I didn't use was my mosquito net and that's because in places where I'd need it, there was one provided. My boots were the best thing I brought, as well as my solar charger. That was well used in Madagascar with no electricity. It feels strange now to have more clothes to choose from than just those in my bag.

I thought I'd be really sad with my 4 month journey coming to an end but I actually felt good and relaxed and excited to see family on the flight home. Its a lot easier coming back to Ireland in June than in Dec. I still haven't been able to shed any light on what to do next with life. I'm going to chill with the folks for a little while here in Dublin, catch up with friends and hope that something comes to me. Either that or start playing the lottery!

I'm so happy to have met some wonderful people along the way, some I hope will be friends for a long time to come. It was also lovely to meet existing friends along the way, it was nice to be around people who you know and you don't have to start conversations with 'where are you from, where are you traveling to... etc' :)

So for now, I'm putting my bag away but I'm sure I'll be itching to dust it off in the future and hit the road again. Till then...thanks for reading!

Oh yeah, here are the photos!


Livingstone and The Caprivi

Hello from Dublin! My 4 months journey finally came to an end at the weekend. And the last 3 and a half weeks were just as fun as the rest of the time has been. Actually so much went on that I'm splitting it into 2 entries, one for Livingstone & northern Namibia (the Caprivi Strip) and the other one for Namibia. Last time I wrote I was in Swakopmund in Namibia. From there I got a bus up to Livingstone in Zambia. It was a 24 hour bus journey and surprisingly it wasn't too horrible. I packed myself some food, listened to some audio books, got into my sleeping bag and managed to sleep for about 8 hours. I only woke around 7am when we were nearing the Caprivi strip. We had a herd of elephants crossing the road in front of us, much more exciting than the cows or sheep that cross the road here in Ireland!

I was staying at a hostel called Fawlty Towers in Livingstone and getting off the bus was mayhem. All the locals are right up in your face offering taxis, accommodation and food. I collected my bag as calmly as possible, told them all I needed a walk after 24 hours on a hot bus and wandered through the town till I found Fawlty Towers which was a really cool chilled hostel.

My friends Rob from the UK and Cara from Canada were meeting me there the next day. It was really fun to see them. Rob has been traveling also for the last few months and Cara moved to Botswana last year to manage a safari camp, leaving her lawyer life behind. While in Livingstone we did a booze cruise down the Zambezi river at sunset, lots of fun and we saw some hippos. The next day we went to visit Victoria Falls.

There's a bridge you can cross right beside the falls and most people who cross it wear ponchos over their clothes because you get absolutely soaked. Rob suggested we go poncho-less, it'd be more of a laugh. It certainly was. If we jumped into the falls we couldn't have gotten any wetter. The bridge was really slippy so Cara and I took off our flip flops so we wouldn't slip. Of course that didn't stop me and I fell right at the beginning of the bridge. I ended up with a lovely bloody elbow, a bruise on my backside and a pain in my side from laughing so much.

Cara only had a couple more days before heading back to Botswana to work and Rob and I had 2 weeks so we decided to head back to Namibia.

There was another bus from Livingstone to Katima in Namibia, just across the Zambian border. I knew some people who owned a Safari Lodge on the Zambezi so after a few quick emails to secure our accommodation for a couple of nights we were off. This was a different type of bus than the 24 hour one I'd taken. It was much more of a local bus, which included people having live chickens in plastic bags are part of their carry on luggage. We made a few stops along the way during the 4 hour journey. At one place, through the window, they would sell you a whole fried fish with the heads still on (similar to the ones I had in Madagascar). Cara and Rob both looked relived I didn't have enough Zambian money to buy one.

We had to be across the Zambian and Namibian borders by 6 and of course the bus was running late. We made it to the Zambian border at 12 minutes to 6. By the time they processed our passports and we found a taxi to take us the 2 min drive to the Namibian border, it was 3 minutes to 6. We were about to put our bags in the taxi and encourage the taxi drive to haul ass to the border but he had huge crates of fish in the back of the car! We quickly moved them to another car and tried not to think about how bad our bags would smell as we threw the bags in and sped off. We were the last people at the Namibian border, the workers were putting on their coats and starting to shut down their computers but luckily they let us through. Exciting but nerve wrecking stuff! Not sure what we would have done if they'd been closed.

Our taxi took us past the border once we'd been processed and onto the the Caprivi Houseboats Safari lodge. I could live at this lodge. Such a chilled place right on the Zambezi. Francois (my friend Johannes' brother) and Chantal his wife run the place which consists of about 5 thatched bungalows with an ensuite outdoor bathroom. The 3 of us piled into bungalow. Chantal made us a lovely dinner and we slept so well, listening to the sounds of the water hitting the river banks.

We hung out there for 2 days, reading, watching some world cup games (including Eng vs US) and Francois organized a private boat trip for us down the Zambezi again at sunset. Such a peaceful beautiful area.

Finally after the 2 days, Cara had to go back to Botswana. Luckily Francois knew someone who could drive Cara most of the way home. Rob and I decided to get the long bus journey (15 hours) back to Windhoek the capital of Namibia and rent a car so we could drive around the country for 8 days and camp.

Anyway, here are the photos I took in Livingstone and the Caprivi. Cara and Rob had much better photos but Cara managed to delete her photos accidentally and Rob had his bag stolen. More about that drama in the next entry!


Saturday, June 5, 2010

A month in the life of a field guide

Hello all. I'm writing this update from Swakopmund in Namibia where I spent 3 months last year working with EHRA and its really lovely to be back! Its been great to chill out for a few days at Rachel and Joe's after an exhausting but really fun month training to be a field guide in South Africa.

The course I was doing basically trains you to become a safari field guide. The area we trained and lived in is part of Kruger National Park which is about 5 hours drive from Jo'burg. There were 9 of us on the course but only 4 of us chose to do the exam at the end. I was the only native English speaker, we had Danish, Dutch, Italian, French, German and Korean so quite a mixture. We all had really cool tents and we didn't have to share which was a luxury, as were the flushing toilets and outdoor showers, a nice change from Madagascar. Each day we'd start with either a bush walk at 6.30 with 2 of our instructors carrying rifles since we were walking in areas with lions, or we'd have class at 8am. We almost walked into some lions one day but one of the vehicles saw them first around the corner from us and picked us up. Phew!

The subjects we covered ranged from geology, astronomy, trees, reptiles to birds, animals and insects. We learned to recognize birds by call and sight, the medicinal uses of trees and what different types of grass mean in certain areas. I'm a bit of a bird geek now and since the course ended I've gotten my bird book out to look up birds I see around!

The goal at the end of the course was to sit a written exam and then have a 3 hour practical assessment. For the practical we had to drive the land rover around a section of the park for 3 hours with an assessor and some students as guests, and we would conduct a safari drive. They could ask us questions on anything we saw and we had to learn how to approach lions and elephants in the vehicle. It seemed overwhelming at first but I'm proud to say we all passed the drive with flying colors! We find out about the written part in a few weeks.

Some of the highlights of the trip were:
- Our instructor Brandon, one of the coolest people you could meet. He knows everything about the bush and had tons of great stories of when he was a game capture ranger.
- One day we were out on a drive and I spotted a lion walking through the brush around 200m away. It looked like it was stalking something so we drove in that direction. Within seconds we saw a kudu fly out of the bushes into the road, closely followed by a lion which took the kudu down. Its incredibly rare to see a lion kill in the wild and it happened metres from our vehicle! One of the girls managed to point her camera in the right direction so once I get a copy of the photos I'll post them. We watched the lionesses and a cub chow down for hours on the kudu. We were so close we could smell the stomach contents - ugh.

- There was a big rock with a flat top in the park and one night we all slept out on it. Since the lions also like to sleep there, we had to take turns patrolling the area all night with a flashlight and keep the fire going. On my watch we could hear the lions roaring in the distance.
- We got to go into Kruger proper for 3 day trips. We saw the big 5 (lion, leopard, rhino, buffalo, elephant) one day before 9am in the morning, we got there at 6am. So great to see all the animals roaming free. After seeing them in that kind of environment its very tough to think about them living in zoos.
- Every second night we'd go on a night drive with spotlights. There was a leopard living in the area and he was impossible to spot so we'd go on leopard-searching drives. We finally saw him in the last week, crafty bugger!
- We also had a day trip to God's Window and Blyde River Canyon which was so beautiful, really stunning scenery and a nice change from the bush we were living in
- Every night we'd go to sleep listening to hippos, lions, elephants all around us. There was an electric fence around the camp but the animals roam all around it each night, kind of strange to be brushing your teeth with a massive bull elephant on the other side of the fence looking at you.

All in all a really great month but exhausting since when we weren't in class or out on field trips, we were studying. I found it a little too much information to take in in 4 weeks but I certainly learned a ton which was the goal. I wish I'd done this course before Madagascar, I would have paid a lot more attention to the trees and birds around me. A good excuse to go back I suppose!

I'm staying in Namibia until Monday when I get a bus up to Victoria Falls, a 24 hour bus journey - fun! :( There I'm meeting Rob and Cara, 2 previous EHRA volunteers and we're not quite sure what we're going to do for my last 2 weeks. Maybe Zimbabwe, Botswana, northern Namibia or Zambia. Tough decisions :)

Anyway, here are the photos of the trip. I wish I'd had my good camera with me, other people got some really amazing shots of the animals but we're hoping to share so I'll post them when I my hands on them.

Hope everyone is well and see you all in Dublin in 3 weeks!