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I have a friend to whom the idea of sleeping in a tent is as close to purgatory as one could get without actually shuffling off any mortal coils. Conspicuously sporting an intense dislike of adventure, dust and insects, her preferred accommodation will come complete with wall-to-wall carpeting, air-conditioning and 24-hour satellite TV, preferably including Oprah. If no alternative exists, then camping is undertaken, grudgingly, with a convoy of vehicles loaded with chemical toilets, feather duvets, the latest in portable kitchen-sinks and only barely stopping short of a liveried butler.
Said person once made the point that there was really no need for her to visit the Masai Mara when she could view the migration perfectly well on satellite TV, edited for the action without having to hang around waiting for the wildebeest to eventually summon up the courage to take a dip with the crocodiles. Perhaps she has a point.
Recently I’ve been reading interesting stuff about the role that technology will play in the future of travel and it got me thinking. The gadgets and gizmos that are now part of everyday life have done much to bring us into closer proximity to the world’s wondrous environments, wild animals and diverse people. For someone who still hasn’t figured out how the now-obsolete fax machine works, I find it remarkable that, from the couch, I can watch a leopard hunting baboons in the Okavango Delta, or learn about the colourful tribes of Papua New Guinea. I can spectate as the intrepid presenters of Top Gear try hard to kill a Land Cruiser (and themselves) in the Arctic or watch the often excruciating experiences of the likes of Bruce Parry as he surrenders to the manhood initiations of people in South America (incidentally, how many initiations does one need before one feels secure in one’s manhood?).
So I got to thinking, while sitting warm, comfortable and within easy reach of the salted peanuts and a cold beer, why bother leaving the couch at all?
When getting ready to meet our maker, no one ever says “I wish I’d watched more TV”. TVs, Laptops, Smartphones, iPads etc., are amazing for finding out what’s out there, sharing it with your mates and planning your adventures...there’s an app for that, but this is not the same thing as actually “living it”. And therein lies the rub: casting yourself into the 3-D reality of the migration, actually being there and experiencing it, is incomparable in every way to the unmemorable event of observing it on a flat-screen. Out There is where you hear, taste, feel, smell AND see it happening, leaving sensations and emotions deeply and indelibly branded on your psyche.
While life becomes faster, more complicated, more stressful, increasingly artificial, I yearn more and more for simple pleasures such as the delicious sensation of rinsing the days’ adventures off my skin in the balmy evening air under a bucket suspended from the branch of a tree...and there ain’t no app. for that.
Quite a long time ago (keeping specifics out of it), my parents made the mistake of trying to surprise me with a holiday at the beach. Their benign conspiracy was met with 6 year old histrionics as I mistakenly assumed that the suitcases being hauled out of the boot at the airport meant that I was being packed off to some far off place for having relentlessly hunted down my still-to-be-wrapped Christmas presents hidden in the cupboard. I’ve never been one to take surprises well.
Of course, now I’m a grown-up (sort of), I take enormous pleasure in planning my next adventure and relishing the anticipation for months before it happens. There’s the thinking about how soon after my last holiday I can tactfully abscond from my responsibilities on the next one. Then there’s the endless studying of maps, enjoying the strange-sounding names and beautiful pictures of places I might visit. Once an approximate plan has been hatched, the reality begins to dawn as I start scheming about how to make it all fit together. Then I get to bore my friends for weeks about where I’m off to next (with the promise of making them jealous with the photos on my return). In fact, I get almost as much pleasure in looking forward to the thing as actually doing it. Now that Christmas is behind us, the shops are spending a small fortune on endlessly repetitive adverts with irritating jingles and fake-smiley people trying to get us excited about spending our own small fortune on a sofa at 70% off. Now forgive me for bursting the bubble here but just how excited can you get about a sofa? And even if you do manage to summon up the energy to wade through the throngs between the freezing grey streets and the overheated fug of department stores to blow some cash on discounted goods that you quite possibly don’t need, just how long is that feel-good factor going to last? My poorly disguised point here (if you’ve not walked in with the bowling), is that instead of opting for the all too easy instant gratification of a new sofa, why not start planning your next great escape? It’ll give you hours of pleasure in anticipation, butterflies in your tummy, and make the next few long winter months pass more quickly...and it will leave you with memories that will be more beautiful and last so much longer than a new sofa, guaranteed. (The above image is of an innovative road-side curio shop...everything's on sales if you barter hard enough).
This festive season I’ve been knocking the smooth edges off my social repertoire and trying to be less of a round peg in a square hole. For those that are familiar with the southern African tradition of The Braai, you will hopefully sympathise with me. People-watching has always been a favourite hobby and I am capable of spending hours at a cafe regarding the variety in our species as one would observe the behaviour of elephants and baboons in the Masai Mara. Since I moved to Harare a year ago, The Braai has become one of my favourite anthropological field sites. It has revealed a fascinating ritual played out in two-tone khaki and “veldskoens” in dozens of leafy gardens every weekend. A characteristic of the southern African male is his inability to comprehend a meal unless it comprises about 80% meat. As he stands proprietarily next to his Weber, a range of tongs, forks and other implements laid out beside him as though preparing for surgery, he flips the various cuts over the coals with one hand while keeping a cold Castle constantly grasped in the other. It’s a sort of balance that has been perfected over time and if the hand is empty, he will probably topple over. As a general observation, I have found that upon arriving at a typical Zimbabwean braai, couples part ways upon disembarkation from the standard white “bakkie” (pick-up truck). The men congregate beer-in-hand around the fire while the women sit on the verandah. To enter into the sacrosanct circle of the braai as a woman, you need to have an exceptional grasp of the finer points of cricket and rugby at the very least. You will never, regrettably, be able to participate in the other topic of conversation which revolves around which boarding school you attended and the tireless, good-natured abuse related to your house’s sporting conquests or lack thereof. Please believe me when I say that this topic is still alive-and -kicking when the gentlemen are in their 70s, and decidedly less so. If you sit with the girls, you will probably spend quite a lot of time talking about children. Now, I have a series of problems identifying and subsequently playing a satisfactory part in this performance. The first is that I would choose a veggie salad over a bloody rump steak on any day of the week and many people behave as though I am a carrier of a rare and faintly amusing disease when I skirt the boerwors in favour of the lentils. The second problem is that, my dog being no substitute for sprogs, I have little to contribute to the re-hashing of Little Johnny’s latest sporting achievements. Lastly, while I can still climb trees and wax lyrical on the pleasures of mountain biking, I have never succeeded in retaining a single useful detail of either cricket or rugby. I’m now contemplating that arriving at the next braai dressed as a clown might make me stand out less as a creature from a different eco-system...I’ll try that next time.
Two days ago I was holding my breath whilst an overgrown cub of a desert lion stood within 3m of our open vehicle. Today I sit with champagne and fresh Namibian oysters in hand as a cape fur seal leaps from the cold Atlantic Ocean onto the deck of the boat. I do a reality check...perhaps this champagne and the strong sun is having unexpected effects. Nope...there is indeed a seal on the boat, currently being scratched under the chin by Nick, our jolly, bearded and sizeable skipper.
This surreal contrast is typical of a journey through Namibia. Every other day the scenery changes so dramatically that it is hard to believe you are in the same country. This morning, for instance, I awoke to the chill of a dense sea fog draped over the very German coastal town of Swakopmund and now I sit beneath a warm African sun surrounded by the azure sea. Nick pilots our little vessel expertly from Namibia’s only deep-water harbour past oil rigs in for a service, container ships and even an abandoned diamond-mining boat, registered to Panama. This one has been running up IOUs in many different ports and skipping town without paying the bill. Interpol finally caught up with it in Walvis Bay and it is now the centre of a court battle. We learn about how gravel and sand is vacuumed from the seabed and sifted for the precious stones. As we skip across the glittering waves, we are joined by the “Namibian Airforce” – a fleet of pelicans that fly alongside the boat, hopeful for a fresh snack. At such close quarters, their fabulous anatomy can be appreciated fully and Nick gives us the benefit of his knowledge about these and the accompanying seagulls as we go. Everyone on board turns National Geographic photographer as we are treated to clear glimpses of both bottle-nose and heavy-sided dolphins breaching alongside the hull.
At Pelican Point, the seal colony proves a good fit for our trip theme...more mating animals. The males weigh in at upto 350kg and at almost half their weight, no wonder many of the females end up practically buried in the sand during “the act”. Youngsters lollop along the sand in search of their mothers. Turning for the harbour, we see where the meaty oysters that we are drenching in lemon and Tabasco are grown. Seed oysters come from Chile to thrive in the chill Benguela current. They are huge and truly delicious. Windswept and freckled by the sun, we step back onto dry land and head back through the dunes of the Namib for coffee and cake in a German bakery. Quite surreal really. Click here to see more images.
Actually it’s probably fair to say that the Romans never made it to Namibia but the Germans have certainly learned a few lessons about road building from them. As we leave Windhoek, a wide tar road stretches to the horizon, straight as an arrow. Windhoek’s attractive streets are well laid out and sign-posted and the traffic lights all work, all of which is a pleasant surprise when compared to some of Africa’s other rather intimidating cities. As three girls travelling together, it’s good to know that Namibia is one of the safest countries in which to travel independently in Africa. The country is vast and largely empty, with a population of around 2 million people, 75% of which live in the northern-most reaches. A whole playground of remote, wild and scenically breath-taking areas are connected mostly by excellent tar or graded gravel roads, making it perfect for our self-drive trip.
I’ve learnt that you need to prepare for some pretty long days in the car, but that each journey offers plenty to see and some very dramatic changes in landscape. The hire car, a 4x4 Nissan double-cab, is comfy and well-equipped, the real bonus being the fridge which, at any one time, contains a variety of chilled drinks, the obligatory supply of chocolate and “padkos” (snacks for the road). We’ve met some folk travelling in saloon cars but I’m pleased to have something a bit more sizeable to allow us to explore some of the rougher terrain. Our safari is taking us through a cross-section of eco-systems; from Etosha’s assorted bush and huge salt pan, through the flat-topped red basalt mountains of Damaraland, the harsh but surprisingly varied desert of the Skeleton Coast and into the red-dunes and mountains of the Namib Naukluft. We’re covering about 4,000km over two weeks but within a few days we feel as though we’ve been travelling for months – there is simply so much to see and do. Since we like to be a bit intrepid, one of the best aspects is the freedom we have to explore at our own pace while still being able to take advantage of the specialist knowledge of the guides in each small camp we visit. At the end of the safari, we will have seen a huge variety of birds and animals, walked through pre-historic canyons, visited seal colonies aboard boats, experienced some local culture, slid down sand-dunes and marvelled at the intensity of the stars in this vast wild country. Tomorrow is another day and I wonder where the next straight road will lead us?
As I stand on the lonely airstrip at 6 o’clock in the morning, I regard the plains where rocks are strewn as if in a giant Japanese garden, stretching to the foot of the mountains beyond. Towering flat-topped basalt hills encircle me and there is not a living thing to be seen. The silence is eerie and complete. There are no bird calls, no sounds of cars or planes, no conversation, no trees for the wind to rustle.
The edge of a pale blue sky is scalloped by the hills; 360 degrees of rock exploding with the deep red of the dawn light. The silence, space and emptiness makes me feel light and exuberant; I feel I am the only person on earth – only it seems more like Mars.
The day before, we land on a white sand beach upon which the Atlantic beats with frothy waves and the wind whips sharply around my ankles. I walk barefoot away from the plane and into the bare reaches of sand, rock, and gravel to feel the emptiness of the desert. The wind is quick and gusty and fills my lungs with fresh salty air. There is not a cloud in the sky. The impression is one of liberation, felt deep in the chest: it touches all the senses.
The following day, from our birdlike vantage point, we witness the patterns of rock and sand created by ancient processes. At the right time of day, the paper-sheaf of angled rock is thrown into relief, the shadows emphasising every sinuous curve. Patterns like veins in the sand made by rare water courses spread beneath us. As we descend, the knobbly bald heads of rocky outcrops race by the windows. I never knew the earth to be such a canvas of patterns and colours. It is beautiful. As I try desperately to preserve the impressions in my brain of all I have seen, and touched, and felt so that I can revisit it all in later years, I realise that this nothingness is what I came for. And the nothingness provided one of the richest experiences I have ever known.
Read more about safaris in Namibia
There’s something to be said for really seeing Africa. By this I don’t mean hopping from one idyllic lodge to the other in a private aircraft (although admittedly, there is certainly something to be said for this). No, actually experiencing the life, the buzz and colourful melee which is daily life to the majority of Africans. Wander through any market and you’ll be treated to a sort of raw sensory overload that I can bet you’ll never match. Large-bottomed ladies in colourful prints argue over the price of tomatoes and sharp lads sit around playing draughts with bottle tops while imbibing the contents of the bottles. Chickens cluck and scoot around between flip-flopping feet, dusty and calloused from hard days treading the rough streets and weekends spent hoeing fields. An old woman, sucking teeth that are either missing or black, rests her back against a red-brick wall; legs outstretched and creased hands kneading folded notes in her hands. She sells crispy-smooth woven palm mats and baskets, wooden spoons for stirring goopy white maize meal. The sea-smell of drying capenta – small lake fish – fills the air in this corner, while further on, a young woman swiftly chops away at a clenched bunch of greens, bitter and fresh. All around are people calling to each other, advertising their wares, exchanging greetings and family news, gossip. In southern Africa, roundabouts are known as “circles” and traffic lights as “robots” (making for potentially disastrous results when requesting directions). Robots are a prime opportunity to tempt captive motorists into purchasing all manner of things...miniature markets. Loofahs, brash holographic pictures of waterfalls that move when you walk past them, dustpans made from cut metal sheets printed by Coca Cola. There are wooden bowls and cheap alarm clocks, copies of men’s magazines covertly displayed between the pages of the local newspaper. There are sometimes puppies and rabbits. It’s where you get your daily newspaper and your telephone scratchcards. The interesting thing is that the vendors don’t try and persuade you that you need the thing. Their sales pitch revolves entirely around how cheap it is. You say “no thanks” and they say: “but, madam, you know the price? So cheap!”. You say: “even if it was free, I still don’t want it”. They say: “only $5...such a good price. End of the day. Closing down sale.” As if this was reason enough for you to go home with an ironing board. Africa....wonderful, frustrating, unique, surprising Africa.
Taking advantage of the Monsoon winds, the Sultans of Oman and Zanzibar plied the Indian Ocean in these unusual wooden crafts known as Dhows several centuries ago. From the Arabian Peninsular they brought dried salted fish, dates and myrrh and on the return trip they were loaded up with cereals, ivory, and human slaves, until slavery was abolished in 1873. To this day, dhows are an integral part of the East coast of Africa and the Persian Gulf - transporting mangrove poles, tea, sugar and cereals. Smaller dhows are sturdy enough to go fishing way out into the ocean for several days at a time. Now it was my turn to set sail. Heading out from Lamu Island towards the mangroves and then to the open sea beyond, it was so easy to pretend for a moment that we were pirates setting forth in search of ancient gold and exotic spices, or fishermen heading way out into the Indian Ocean for weeks never to see land, but the reality was quite different. I was aboard Tusitiri - a beautiful dhow owned not by The Sultan of Oman but an eccentric Scandinavian gentleman. The wide wooden deck furnished with heaps of brightly coloured cushions, a vast wooden dining table at the base of the mast and, at the front, the massive wheel. This was to be home for the next three blissful days. Going to the loo got some getting used to; the small wooden cubicle hanging off the edge of the dhow was a tight squeeze but perfectly private from the team and with fabulous views of the sea and passing dhows. Getting used to using the smallest bit of loo paper was a tad awkward but very important. The shower on the other side was refreshing and a real luxury. In the cool, dark depths of the hull below was space for luggage and changing. Our days were spent on deck with forays onto deserted beaches for picnics. Most of the rocky coves are covered with oysters so armed with a knife, we gouged off the oyster shells, prized them open, swilled them in sea water, a squeeze of lemon, drop of Tabasco and plopped into your mouth. You can’t get fresher than that. We certainly did not starve. In fact, every meal was a banquet of either lobsters, mangrove crabs, barbecued fish or prawns, all freshly prepared by the on-board chef using local spices and plenty of coconut milk. Hot bread, tropical fruits, salads, cakes and pastas, the table was positively groaning not to mention the old waistline. I snorkelled, water-skied and went deep-sea fishing, where I caught my first sailfish which was tagged and released. It was nonstop - and I thought I was going to finish my book! Twilight was the best bit. Cool air, delicious smells coming from the galley kitchen, a chilled glass of white wine, relaxing on cushions, and listening to the men sing their gentle Swahili songs while watching the great sun disappear across the sea. Explore more beaches and coves: check out camps and lodges on the Indian Ocean coast.
Tippi Degré was born in Namibia in 1990 to wildlife film-maker parents. Already it would seem improbable that she was destined to have a run- of-the-mill childhood. Her first ten years was indeed pretty special as her parent’s work took them travelling throughout southern Africa. Namibia’s game ranches, conservancies and the tribal lands of the Himba and San Bushmen became as familiar to her as the local neighbourhoods of a town-child. Rather like a modern-day Rudyard Kipling (and his Jungle Book creation, Mowgli), Tippi not only made herself at home in the bush but also befriended its inhabitants, displaying unusual fearlessness to the creatures she encountered. Pictures of Tippi scaling the trunk of an elephant, reclining against the furry flank of a leopard and riding an ostrich depict a very unusual child. How cool that your best mate is a meerkat and that, barely knee-high to a grasshopper, you can tick off a leopard by tapping it on the nose and saying “stop that!”. Her mother, Sylvie Robert, developed the belief that her scruffy little rough diamond of a daughter could communicate with the animals and regarded them as her contemporaries. Not all children are Tippis but they all certainly have the capacity to be captivated by Africa and its wildlife. How tangible is the excitement of children when they first see the tent they will spend the night in, or the Samburu warrior who shows them how to shoot a bow and arrow, and the antics of geckos catching moths around a light at night! While Nintendo and the TV do provide handy distractions for kids, how can they possibly compete with excavating the tiny funnels of ant lions in the sand, or the excitement of hearing a hyena whooping at night? And, selfishly, how cool to benefit from a second childish euphoria while you watch all this as a grown-up? Furthermore, and probably stating the obvious here, but if the next generation don’t get to enjoy the barefoot freedom of wild places and develop an understanding of its importance for our future, how on earth can we expect them to take an interest in conserving it? Find out more about going on safari with your children. Check out some ideas for child-friendly trips to Africa. Check out Tippi’s web-site.
We curious humans can’t resist a pull towards out of the way places where the possibility of not seeing another person or car for days is just as enticing as the beauty of the landscape or the local wildlife. The journey, while possibly a tad more challenging, is often part of the adventure and makes it all the more special. From repeated experience, I can testify that a major schlep to reach a place almost always reaps massive returns (and you feel all intrepid and a bit like Ranulph Fiennes for a day or two). In the late ‘90s I took at trip on a ferry from Nkhata Bay on Lake Malawi to Likoma Island. Having travelled hard for a month through Mozambique, we decided that we’d earned a little luxury and splashed out on a first class ticket (all of about $20), envisaging a cosy bunk and a cabin cooled by the lake breeze. Unfortunately it didn’t quite work out like that and first class turned out to be a hard bench on the open deck. Third class was down in the bilges with a lot of people, assorted livestock, bunches of bananas, pungent dried fish and sacks of rice. Luxury was clearly relative. The on-board entertainment consisted of watching the dugout canoes of traders pulling alongside as we chugged along. These boats were hewn from a single tree and some were vast – I counted a family of ten plus baggage seated comfortably in one. Sales were made to the passengers after noisy haggling and the dugouts paddled off as the sun went down. We disembarked in the dark at 4am. It was rather like the D-Day landings...lifeboats were lowered with a single kerosene lamp suspended from the prow. Passengers in the bottom of the ship fought with each other for space, behaving as if each boat was the last. Finally aboard our own lifeboat, we huddled in the cool of the early morning and listened to the gentle splash of the oars as we headed for the dark island. We sat on the beach and watched the sun turn the smooth lake to mercury as the sounds of the day reached us from the villages on Likoma. We spent several idyllic days camped in rustic thatched shacks on an almost impossibly picturesque beach, accessorized with promontories of big round boulders. We snorkelled in the warm clear water where colourful tropical fish swim, rivalling any marine reef (and lacking only the coral and saltiness of the ocean).
This little patch has now evolved into the beautiful island lodge of Kaya Mawa and Likoma is the jumping-off point for the equally special hideaway of Nkwichi (pictured above), on the Mozambique side of the lake. These are not the easiest places to get to but then again, that's half the appeal. That said, you can still enjoy the solitude and splendid isolation without slumming it on the deck of the ferry. Simple berths are available for the adventurous and there are also charter flights to the island. Find out more about the Lake. Check out Nkwichi - our featured hideaway. Find inspiration for other Wild experiences.