Friday, March 31, 2017

First adventures in Namibia (January-February 2017)

Rock patterns in Etosha

Thunder Bay, March 29, 2017

So now I'm only two months behind on my blog.  With any luck, within a week I might have brought everything up to date; it feels good to be catching up, rather than falling further behind!

First Steps in Namibia:  Quiver Trees and Rainstorms

When I last left you, we were entering Namibia, my 132nd country and number 78 on Terri's life list. We immediately lost the asphalt road that we had been following on the South African side of the border, but the Namibian dirt road was in excellent condition and it was easy to steam along at 75 km/h in comfort and safety.  There was next to no traffic as there was next to no population on this dry landscape.  We stopped in briefly for fuel and to pay our road tolls (N$ 259, or about US$20) in the small town of Aroab, then continued along our way.  The landscape had changed, becoming more varied and dramatic than on the other side of the border, with escarpments, plains, pans, tiny volcanic cones and dramatic haphazard piles of huge fractured boulders.  We made our way to Keetmanshoop and continued 15 km out of town to the lovely oasis of the Quiver Tree Forest.  

Terri looks very nervous as she pets the cheetah!
Quiver trees (Aloe dichotoma) are endemic to Namibia and the Northern Cape in South Africa. They're a distinctive tree, with fat trunks and stubby branches slightly reminiscent of baobabs, but with a golden flaky bark and a few more leaves.  The campsite is on the edge of one of the densest concentrations of these trees to be found anywhere, and is a wonderful spot to stay; we liked it so much that we stayed an extra day!  It's on a commerical farm, and one of the highlights is the fact that the farmer, Coenrad, has four cheetahs who were found abandoned as babies and raised by him. At 5:30 pm every day he feeds them, and allows his guests to come into the enclosures with him and pet the oldest, tamest cheetah on the head while she devours her meat.  It was a slightly unnerving activity, as the picture of Terri shows:  it's hard to be completely at ease when you're that close to a big hungry cat!  Coenrad also has a pet warthog, and I was never very comfortable around it either, with its huge tusks.  Later events would confirm my instinctive unease.

Rosy-faced lovebirds at Quiver Tree Forest
That night we cooked up a pot of spaghetti and Terri ended up hiding in the cab of Stanley as a massive thunderstorm swept in, complete with huge gusts of wind and dramatic flashes of lightning. I was on cooking duty, so I put on my raincoat and got wet until supper was ready, then climbed into Stanley to eat.  It was rather ironic that we had come to Namibia to escape the rains in South Africa only to get rained on apocalyptically on the first night in the country!

We slept poorly, as the storm left and returned twice more with flashes of lightning, stertorous thunder and deafening impacts of huge raindrops on Stanley's aluminum roof.  In addition I had left the waterproof window flaps unzipped to give us some fresh air, so by the time I had woken up and realized what was happening, our bedding and mattress had gotten quite wet.  We woke up at 8:15 and had a lazy big breakfast, deciding over bacon and eggs to stay another night.  I did some juggling and played some guitar before the clouds parted suddenly and illuminated the quiver trees.  I grabbed my camera and Terri and I headed over to walk around, admiring the other-worldly boulders and trees.  It was very pretty, with the golden bark contrasting beautifully with the deep blue sky.

Quiver tree bark
I did some yoga that morning, and then saw even better light break out on the quiver trees, so I ran off to take some more photos.  When I got back to Stanley, Terri greeted me convulsed in giggles. When she finally was able to speak, she pointed to my yoga mat, and I saw that it was shredded.  She said that she had turned her back, and when she looked around, the warthog was busy destroying the mat.  Coenrad wasn't terribly surprised, and kindly gave me a blue camping foam mat to use.  I guess it was an example of a downward-facing hog position?

Love the toes raised to stay off the hot rock
Blue-headed agama at Giant's Playground
We then pulled out the bicycles and rode 5 km up the dirt road (it was a bit washboarded, making cycling a bit annoying) to the Giant's Playground, another scenic spot owned by Coenrad.  It was now genuinely hot in the blazing midday sun, but we still walked dutifully around the hiking trail, taking photos of the dramatically perched boulders.  It was actually the wildlife that caught our eye even more, with gaily-coloured lizards sunning themselves atop each outcrop, many of them the spectacular blue-headed agama (Agama atra).  There were plenty of birds as well, and the views out over the seemingly endless expanse of ancient boulders made us feel like very insignificant time travellers.  

Quiver Tree Forest
Properly baked by the sun and the infrared radiation off the hot rocks, we cycled back to the Quiver Tree Forest; it was a lot easier going downwind and downhill!  It was nice to beat the heat in the swimming pool, but I managed to drag myself away for a run before flopping back into the pool.  We watched the cheetah feeding again, and then bought ourselves some game meat from Coenrad.  Terri stir-fried some springbok for dinner, battling a huge wind that blew out the flame on our gas stove twice. We managed to finish eating and wash up before the night's storm blew in. 

Quiver Tree Forest
Tuesday, January 24th we were up and off in reasonable time, but we lingered a bit in the metropolis of Keetmanshoop getting ourselves sorted for our new country:  groceries, SIM cards, Namibian dollars and a new pair of reading glasses for Terri.  I also climbed under the vehicle for my daily top-up of the transfer case oil, a process at which I was becoming more and more adept.  We eventually set off north along the asphalt of the B1, the main north-south highway, eating meat pies and listening to an audiobook until we heard a noise from the back.  I stopped and had a look, but didn't see anything obviously wrong.  I set off again, but within thirty seconds I realized something was drastically wrong.  The initial sound had been the sound of a back tire puncturing, and by now it was flat and the tire was a shredded mass of rubber.  It took nearly an hour to change the tire, most of that time being spent on the irritating process of removing the spare tire from underneath the camper.  We put the wrecked tire inside Stanley and drove off in search of a tire dealership.

More quiver trees
In the town of Mariental we found a garage that sold us a nice new tire and mounted it, and put it back under the camper (the longest part of the operation, even for trained professionals).  It was now too late to drive to Sesriem as we had planned, so we decided to find a place to stay in the vicinity. We ended up in the Hardap Nature Reserve, a small wildlife park based around a big water reservoir about 20 km outside Mariental.  It was a surprisingly beautiful spot, well set up for domestic tourists. There were excellent camping facilities and a lot of well-built cottages, and a fabulous view out over the reservoir.  Terri cooked up some lasagne in our oven and we sat outside around a campfire until (inevitably) a downpour rolled in and drove us inside and to bed.  That made three straight nights of heavy rain, and it was starting to annoy us.

Namib Nights:  The Beautiful Dunes of Sossusvlei

The next morning we were up by 6:45 and rolling by 8:45.  We took some time to do a very short game drive inside the game reserve before leaving; we had been told that there were black rhinos to be seen, but we saw none of them.  A few gemsboks and springbok did make an appearance and lots of ostriches pecked away at the grass on the plains next to the reservoir, but the jeep track was muddy and promised to get worse, so we eventually pulled the plug on the safari and headed off towards Sesriem.

Dessicated desert wood at Sesriem
We bumped our way back to Mariental, bought our usual lunch of steak pies and then drove west towards the coast and the Namib Desert.  The road was paved at first, and then turned into more excellent recently-graded gravel.  The scenery was fabulous, with sweeping vistas of canyons and a big descent from the interior plateau into a Tibetan-style gravel plain ringed by steep desert mountains.  Namibia was certainly delivering as promised on the landscape front.  We arrived in the tiny outpost of Sesriem at 4 pm, got our (very expensive) tent site and set up camp.  It's a big campsite, very popular with large overland trucks, although the tent sites are sufficiently widely spaced to give the illusion of being alone in the desert.  We bobbed in the pool for a while, although it was very crowded with overlanders, then went back to our campsite for juggling, yoga and dinner.  We watched a dramatic sunset, then stoked up a roaring campfire and sat out under the stars, revelling in the surroundings and the clear, rainless skies.

Ghostly early morning misty dunes at Sossusvlei
Sossusvlei morning
We were up very early the next morning for our visit out to the iconic sand dunes of Sossusvlei.  We were up at 4:45 and were the third vehicle through the access gate at 5:30.  It was still pretty dark as we sped along the paved road between unseen dunes.  Twice spotted hyenas appeared out of the darkness, loped across the asphalt and vanished again into the gloom.  It was 60 km to Sossusvlei, and as we passed Dune 45, scene of many a tourist snapshot, it got light enough to see that the dunes were enveloped in thick morning mist; we were not going to get a picture-perfect sunrise.  We drove on and arrived at the end of the pavement.  Since Stanley's 4WD wasn't working, we weren't comfortable trying to drive the last 4 km along a deep sand track, so we paid an outrageous N$ 150 (US$ 11) for a one-way lift to Sossusvlei itself, then set off on foot.

Tree in the pan at Sossusvlei
Sossusvlei is easily the most famous tourist sight in the entire country of Namibia.  The Namib Desert extends along the Atlantic Coast, and is full of high ancient sand dunes, but there is next to no access to the heart of this sand sea.  The only place where the average tourist can get into the dunes is here, where a dead-end road penetrates to within 50 km of the sea, and it is justifiably on everyone's Namibian itinerary.  As we walked across small salt pans and then up a huge red dune, we paused to look around at the mist still shrouding the nearby dunes; they weren't going anywhere just yet, and actually made for a good mysterious atmosphere in photos.  We got to the summit ridge of the huge Big Daddy Dune, then ran down to the bottom to a huge white pan that apparently fills with water once every few years after exceptional rains.

Sossusvlei trees
It actually looked at first glance as though there was water at the bottom, but closer inspection revealed that it was just the greyish rippled surface of the hard salty sand.  Ghostly trees stick out of the pan surface in a way that just begs to be photographed, and in places we could see where the movement of the huge dunes (they must be well over 100 metres high, not quite as high as the dunes at Dunhuang in China, but still pretty enormous) had partially buried the trees.  The ripples of the dunes are impressive, and make complicated four-sided or five-sided shapes that, seen from above, give the reason for their name of "star dunes".  We wandered around, taking photos of trees and dessicated wood and dunes and generally oohing and aahing at the picturesque beauty of the place, until the big tourist groups started arriving and we made our way back to the track.

Abstract shapes in the Sossusvlei pan
We had planned to walk back to where Stanley was parked, but as we hiked along, an empty shuttle vehicle came by and offered us an unofficial lift back for a reduced price, payable in cash to the driver.  We said yes, paid up our N$50 and held on as we slalomed along through the sand, past hapless tourists who were getting mired in sand going the other direction.  We pulled out our cooking gear and had a big breakfast of fried eggs before setting off on our second mission of the day, a hike out to lovely Hidden Vlei.  An indistinct line of wooden posts led across the desert towards the vlei (pan), and after 45 minutes of walking, we found ourselves looking down on a pan that was even more dramatic than Sossusvlei itself.  More photographs and admiring the views, and then it was time to trudge back to the parking lot.  

Sossusvlei dunes
We didn't want to drive all the way back to Sesriem, as we wanted to see the dunes later in the afternoon and maybe at sunset, so we popped Stanley's roof and slipped up into bed for a well-earned nap.  It was very hot indeed, but we had positioned Stanley under the only shade tree in the parking lot, and with the side flaps open, there was a strong cooling breeze blowing through, and we dozed, read and dozed some more until it was 4:30 pm and the parking lot was completely empty.  It was nice having this restful option for the hot part of the day.

Dunes between Sesriem and Sossusvlei
We drove back towards Sesriem with the idea of taking photos at Dune 45, the closest dune to the main road, but when we got there a big noisy group of Chinese tourists was shouting their way up the side of the dune, and it didn't look nearly as photogenic as we had hoped it would, so we decided to head back to Sesriem before dark.  It was a beautiful drive back between the sinous dunes, and we kept stopping for more photos.  We stirfried up some more springbok from Quiver Tree and then sat out under the stars with a crackling fire and some whisky.  It was an exceptionally clear night, and by the time we headed to bed, we had seen 15 separate satellites and 4 bright meteors in the sky, quite a satisfying total.

Canyons and Flamingoes:  The Road to the Coast

Part of the Kuiseb Canyon
It was distinctly cold at night at Sesriem, and I woke up regretting not using my down sleeping bag.  I topped up our transfer case oil (we seemed to be leaking about 150 ml a day, which meant that we had enough to last until we had to return to Windhoek) and we headed off northwest towards Walvis Bay and the coast.  It was a spectacular drive, along dirt roads that snaked past dramatic canyons, along a plateau backed by desolate rocky mountains and then through a crazed landscape of tilted strata dissected by the dry bed of the Kuiseb River.  We saw lots of signs for campgrounds along the road, and afterwards we realized that this area is a prime destination for people looking for isolated camping under the stars in the desert.  We cut through the Namib-Naukluft National Park, past intriguing-looking tracks leading to remote campsites, telling ourselves that in the future we would be back to explore in greater detail.  The Kuiseb Canyon was beautiful, and we saw in the distance Carp Cliff Cave, where German geologists Henno Martin and Hermann Korn spent part of their two years on the run during World War Two, told in the book The Sheltering Desert.  We climbed up the other side of the canyon and then we were on the desolate gravel plains that extend to the seashore.  By mid-afternoon we were driving into the orderly suburbs of Walvis Bay, a former British/South African enclave within Namibia, and setting up camp in a very urban campground called Lagoon Chalets. It was very windy indeed, and we were glad for the shelter of walls and trees, although it was still challenging to keep our stove lit.

We left Stanley and went out for a stroll towards the waters of Walvis Bay.  It's one of the most important birdwatching spots in all of southern Africa, with its shallows and salt flats drawing in dozens of waders and shore birds.  As soon as we got out to the wide walkway along the seafront, we saw a pink wave of lesser and greater flamingoes congregated in their hundreds.  We walked along, taking photos, and spotted other species:  pied avocets with their strange upturned beaks, various terns and gulls, and white-fronted plovers.  We had our eyes peeled for a relatively rare shorebird, the chestnut-banded plover, found in only a handful of locations, of which Walvis Bay is the most likely. Search as we might, we didn't see any of them, and after a while we were cold and tired of the raking wind, so we walked back to camp and supper.  I ended up chatting with our neighbours, a couple whose old Land Cruiser had a license plate that I didn't recognize.  It turned out to be Rwandan; he is Canadian and she is a Canadian who was Rwandan by birth, and they spent time every year in Rwanda, driving each year to other countries to explore.  It reminded us that we were only two border crossings from East Africa, where we had hoped to go on this leg of Stanley's Travels,  Perhaps next year?  I braaied some lamb chops for dinner and then sorted through photos after dinner.

Flamingoes at Walvis Bay
By this point we had made some executive decisions on our upcoming travel plans.  I picked a date out of the air (since we didn't yet know my father's surgery date) and decided that I would fly to Canada on March 16th, while Terri would head to New Zealand to see her family on the same date. We also knew that trying to tackle the rough tracks of Damaraland and the Kaokoveld, an area that we both wanted to visit, would be a bad idea without our 4WD working, and that we were going to be out of the country from February 7th to February 17th, doing some tour guiding in South Africa.  During that period of time, we wanted Stanley to be undergoing surgery to repair the transfer case and turn Stanley back into a proper 4WD vehicle.  Given those constraints, we decided that we would go up to Etosha National Park, and stop in at a garage in Windhoek to make arrangements for the transfer case work en route.  We would then poke around Etosha until it was time for our flight to Johannesburg.  We were also coming around to the idea that we might not be able to sell Stanley, at least not for the price we wanted for him, so finding a place to store him in Windhoek was also a priority.

Lone greater flamingo, Walvis Bay
Saturday, January 28th saw us getting up a bit lazily.  Terri was feeling a bit under the weather, and we wanted to do laundry before heading out, so we lingered over breakfast and internet before driving out to the shore for more birdwatching.  The wind had dropped a great deal, and birdwatching was a bit more enjoyable than the day before.  We drove along the shore south to the salt works, where some 90% of all of South Africa's salt is produced by evaporation, leaving intriguing patterns of crystal growth in the murky brine.  We did well on bird species, with greater and lesser flamingoes in great numbers, along with pied avocets, common sandpipers, ruddy turnstones, common terns and Cape teals.  If our 4WD had been working, we could have continued around the bay out to Pelican Point to see pelicans and seals, but that would have to wait for another visit.  It was wonderful to see all the birds lining the shore, such a contrast to the bleak gravel plains inland.  We even startled a pair of black-backed jackals drinking at a little pond; I wonder if they catch unwary birds from time to time?

Tennis and Logistics in Windhoek

Salt evaporation pool, Walvis Bay
From Walvis Bay we drove to Swakopmund, about 40 km along the Atlantic coast.  It's an area of tourist development, but to my eye it's too desolate and wind-swept to be really appealing.  It's very popular with fishermen, and every second pickup truck seemed to be carrying an array of long surf-casting rods, usually sticking up from the front bumper like a forest of CB radio aerials.  We got to Swakopmund, bought diesel and then decided to leave this German resort town for our next visit.  We got onto the main road and cruised towards Windhoek, keeping an unsuccessful eye out for welwitschia, a prehistoric-looking plant endemic to the gravel plains just inland from the coast.

It was an easy drive into Windhoek, but we hadn't picked a place to stay, and we ended up wasting a lot of time looking for one.  The next day was the Australian Open men's tennis finals, between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, and as a huge Federer fan, I was anxious to watch what might very possibly end up being their last great match, so we wanted an indoor venue with satellite TV.  You wouldn't think that would be so hard to find in a major city, but it was after dark by the time we finally found Pension Cori, a little oasis of gardens and gentility tucked away behind a non-descript outside wall.  Rini, the irrepressible South African woman who runs the place, welcomed us in and enlisted my help reprogramming the satellite TV feed to get the tennis.

It was a good break from the road.  We slept well in a huge bed, sleeping late into the morning, before I settled down to watch what turned out to be a match for the ages; after 3 hours and 37 minutes of oscillating fortunes, great shots on both sides and enough suspense and excitement that I was jumping around the hotel room celebrating every Federer point won in the final set, Federer finally put his demons to rest by coming from behind in the fifth set to win an improbable title at age 35.  It was worth every penny that we spent to stay indoors!  We went out afterwards for a late lunch/early dinner, a tough task on a Sunday afternoon when most of Windhoek has rolled up the shutters, but eventually we found a steakhouse for a festive meal of spare ribs.

Monday, January 30th found us loth to move on, and it was 11 am before we finished packing and set off.  Our plan was to find a place to do repairs on Stanley before we left town.  Gearbox and Diff Doctor, our first port of call, proved to be a pretty professional-looking outfit, so we arranged to drop Stanley off the following Monday for what promised to be two weeks of work.  We stopped in to get my camera CCD cleaned (the relentless dust had worked its way into the interior of the camera and I had to use Adobe Lightroom to remove dust spots from every photo); the owner wouldn't do the cleaning for me, but sold me some exortitantly expensive cleaning pads to do the job myself.  We stocked up Stanley's lovely new Engel fridge with food at the Pick'n'Pay, and then headed out of town towards Windhoek airport, where we knew that there was a campground that also stored vehicles; the plan was to stay there and figure out whether it was where we might want to leave Stanley if we couldn't sell him.

Looking out into Etosha Pan
Ondekaremba proved to be a very lovely spot, out in the bush, far enough from the road and the airport not to hear any noise from them.  Windhoek is far enough inland from the dry coast to not be a desert; instead it's classic African bush, with lots of acacia trees.  There was a lot of birdlife around, and we had a pleasant stroll around the grounds before eating leftover stirfry and vegetables while stewing up beef for future suppers.  It was another pretty place to spend the night, and we talked once again about how lucky we were to be able to lead such a charmed lifestyle on the road.  That evening we were treated to a good view of Venus next to the slender semicircle of the new moon low in the western sky.

Magical Wildlife Moments in Etosha

Early morning spotted hyena
We left Windhoek slowly the next day, with a late wakeup after a solid night's sleep.  We did some stretching before settting off, and stopped in at the Trans Kalahari Inn, another possible option for storing Stanley, to book rooms for the following week.  We drove into town, stocked up again at the grocery store and then finally set off towards the north at 12:20 pm. It was an easy drive through pleasant scenery:  lush hilly woodland at first, then drier plateau, then a broad plain dotted with remnant mud puddles from the most recent rains.  We hadn't booked any accommodation at Etosha yet, and we had decided to stay outside the park on the first night to maximize use of our park entrance fees.  We ended up at Etosha Safari Camp, only 10 km from the main southern Andersson gate, by 4:30.  It proved to be a wonderful place to stay, with widely-spaced sites, lots of tree cover, a pool (in which we swam to beat the heat), a funky bar area and lots of birds, including our first view of the lesser masked weaver.  We sat out beside the camp fire that night suddenly aware of how little time remained for us in Africa; after months of travel, we were down to a few weeks of camping before we had to fly away.

Springbok bucks jousting
Our three days in Etosha National Park were among the best game-viewing experiences of our eight months in Africa.  Etosha is one of the legendary parks of Africa, and for good reason.  It is a very flat expanse, centred on the immense Etosha Pan, and much of the west of the park has little high vegetation for animals to hide behind.  It's full of springbok and gemsbok and hartebeest, and of the predators that eat them, and the animals are generally easy to see.

Spotted hyena drinking right beside Stanley
We set off from our campsite by 6:05, early enough that we had twenty minutes of waiting at the park gate before it opened exactly at sunrise.  We drove along the paved road to the main rest camp at Okaukuejo, where we paid for our three days of park fees and one night of camping (the plan was to drift eastward, one rest camp a day, for three days before exiting the east side of Etosha).  Properly paid up, we set off to the west to what our guidebook proclaimed to be one of the iconic sights of the park, the Phantom Forest.  It was a distinctly underwhelming visual experience, but at least it provided a picnic spot for a hearty eggs and toast breakfast.  There were thousands of springbok about, but not much else, and we headed back east towards the edge of the pan after breakfast.  It was a very striking view out into the immensity of the pan, like looking over a perfectly calm ocean, except made of salty mud.  We found the sad remnants of a giraffe who had been devoured near one of the waterholes, and saw lots of what birdwatchers like to call LBJs:  Little Brown Jobs, the non-descript species of lark and pipit and flycatcher that all blend together to those (like us) who are not committed twitchers.  We did in the end manage to identify the spike-heeled lark, Stark's lark and the chat flycatcher.  By 1:30 we were done and driving back to camp, satisfied but not overwhelmed by our day of wildlife.  The short-grass plains around Okaukuejo gave us, in addition to the springbok and gemsbok that you would expect in dry areas, a few wildebeest and ostriches and lots of zebras, along with a couple of black-backed jackals and lots of cute ground squirrels.

Black-winged stilt
We went out to the illuminated waterhole that evening in hopes of seeing black rhinos coming in for water, but we struck out.  The beautiful starry skies were some compensation, but we were keen on black rhinos, which we had only seen once on the entire trip, right at the beginning in Kruger.

Magnificent lioness
Two lionesses drinking in the early morning near Okaukuejo
We were up early the next morning as the entire campsite arose noisily around us.  By 6:50 we were driving out of the camp gates, hoping for early-morning wildlife magic.  It soon arrived, in the form of two juvenile spotted hyenas whom we saw loping along the plain with their peculiar droop-shouldered gait.  They strolled right up to the road and stopped to drink water from a puddle two metres from where Terri had parked Stanley.  We sat breathless for several minutes watching these beautiful animals up close, and got a number of good photos. It was an unforgettable encounter with an animal often viewed with fear and revulsion by humans.  No sooner had they wandered off than we drove into Nebrowni waterhole to find two rare blue cranes and, right beside them, two magnificent lionesses in the prime of life, drinking side by side after a hard night's hunting.  The lionesses lingered for a long time before stalking off with regal air, one after the other.  There was a party of zebras passing behind the waterhole and the zebras very nearly walked right into the retreating lionesses, which would have made an already amazing sighting even more improbable.  At the last second the zebras cottoned on and moved away from the lead lioness who was starting to look both hungry and very interested.

Blue crane
European bee-eater and its coat of many colours
We spent the rest of the morning meandering from waterhole to waterhole along the southern edge of Etosha Pan, through alternating bands of short-grass plains and thick mopane woodland.  We saw more blue cranes, including two babies, along with baby wildebeests, hundreds of spindly-legged springbok infants and more jackals.  The sky began to darken as we drove, and we began to get anxious about getting stuck in mud in a downpour without any working 4WD.

Black-faced impala at Halali waterhole
Remarkably we made it to Halali without getting wet.  We set up camp and then walked up to Halali waterhole where we had a slightly bizarre fight with a tour group of older French tourists from an overland truck.  The afternoon before at Okaukuejo waterhole everyone had been very well-behaved, obeying the "Silence Please" signs and watching the birds and animals peacefully and amicably.  This group was loud, boorish and refused to pipe down even when we pointed out the signs.  The tour guide, who would usually in cases like this try to keep his unruly tourists in line, was instead very pugnacious and we nearly came to blows.  I didn't see it, but Terri saw that he actually pulled out a knife to use on me.  It seemed a bizarre over-reaction to being asked to obey the rules.  Luckily they finished their picnic and wandered off, leaving us in possession of the waterhole.  We again didn't see any rhinos, but the pond was alive with turtles of all sizes, and a single black-faced impala showed up to drink later.  It's not a separate species, just a race or subspecies, but the addition of a big black blaze down the nose completely changes the look of the common impala to something a big more majestic and mysterious.

Lesser flamingoes, Etosha
That afternoon and evening, in an almost deserted campground, we chatted with our fellow campers: a party of three Americans and an Irishman travelling with both a guitar and a mandolin; a pair of Brits who had bought their own car in South Africa (like us), who had used the same "agent" in Johannesburg to register their car (based, it turned out, on our recommendation on the Africa4x4Cafe website); and Butch and Wendy, a pair of very well-travelled South Africans who had a good look at Stanley in case Butch's brother might be interested in buying him.  Wendy, though, after looking at Stanley and all the gear that comes with him, opined that we would be crazy to sell him, since he was so optimized for the kind of travel that we wanted to do.  That evening, talking it over, we decided that she was right and that we should give up on trying to sell Stanley and store him instead for future use.

Looking out into the immensity of Etosha Pan at a gathering storm
Eurasian hobby
Our last full day in Etosha was rainy.  It rained during the night, stopped and then restarted at dawn, leaving us to sleep in until 7 and have a lazy getaway after a big breakfast.  It rained off and on all day, gently at first and then with frightening ferocity, out of a pitch-black sky, in the afternoon.   We made our way out onto a lookout causeway that leads a couple of kilometres onto the soft surface of the pan and felt swallowed up by the immensity of the space around us.  Gaily-coloured European bee-eaters, Eurasian hobbies and red-necked falcons played on the posts marking the edge of the causeway, and suddenly, out on the pan surface, we saw the bird that we had failed to spot at Walvis Bay:  the chestnut-banded plover.  We drove back towards solid ground in a jubilant mood, a feeling further improved by spotting hundreds of flamingoes in a little waterhole beside the road. The sky was darkening in front of our eyes, and we seemed to be headed straight towards a wall of blackness. The skies ruptured open as we headed towards the camp at Nemutoni, and we were fortunate to make it off off the jeep track we were following and onto the solidity of the main gravel road, as the tracks were beginning to flood.

I think it might be about to rain!
At Halali we sheltered for a couple of hours in the restaurant before the rain stopped long enough for us to check out the waterhole:  again there were no rhinos, and we retreated to Stanley for supper before rain put paid to the idea of sitting outside.

Black-backed jackal
Saturday, February 4th saw us doing one last game drive before bidding farewell to the park, and we ended up glad that we did.  We went out first in search of Damara dik-diks, a tiny antelope that we had yet to tick off our list.  Despite some dedicated searching, we came up empty-handed, but we had lots of meetings with very skittish giraffes and lots of raptors, followed by our first sightings of Cape shoveller ducks and African shelducks at Klein Namutoni waterhole.

That is a serious kick by a fleeing giraffe
We gave up on dik-diks and took a lap around Fischerpan, the easternmost extension of Etosha Pan.  It was partly full of water and looked striking, particularly when we drove across it with water on both sides.  We spotted blue cranes at one waterhole and saw lots of elephant tracks in the mud of the pan, although we struck out on elephants themselves.  Then, just as we were rounding the back part of Fischerpan I spotted what seemed at first to be bat-eared foxes in the distance.  I pulled out my binoculars and realized that these "foxes" had stripes and a familiar droop-shouldered look.  We pulled out our mammal guide and checked, and, sure enough, we had hit it very lucky.  What we were looking at were three juvenile aardwolves, a species of small hyena that lives entirely on termites and is usually strictly nocturnal.  We were very lucky to see them; many guides and biologists that we talked to had told us that they had never seen aardwolves, and we had more or less given up on ever seeing them.  We sat watching them in the distance, suddenly very happy, and it was hard to tear ourselves away and start driving out of the park.
Our lucky sighting of three juvenile aardwolves
Standing atop the world's largest space rock, the Hoba Meteorite
We checked out of the park at Von Lindquist Gate and started driving towards Tsumeb.  Our destination was the Hoba Meteorite, the largest meteorite ever discovered.  It took a while to get there, but it was a pretty drive and well worth the detour.  At 64 tons, it's an immense chunk of iron mixed with nickel, pitted and melted on the outside from its fall through Earth's atmosphere.  It's a bit strange that there is no crater associated with such a big rock; maybe it hit Earth with a low relative speed, travelling in the same basic direction as our planet.  We took some photos and then began the long retreat towards Windhoek.  We ended up spending the night at an unexpected gem of a place, Otjira Lodge.  Our campsite was away from all the others, and we had a great walk through the bush, perfect stars and a massive campfire on which we grilled some great pork chops after yet another postcard-perfect sunset.  We told ourselves that we would make it back to Otjira on our next loop through Namibia.

From there our first loop through Namibia was more or less over.  We spent the next morning chatting with an Austrian couple, Manfred and Barbara, who had lived in Namibia for 25 years, and were full of great information on where to camp in Damaraland and the Kaokoveld.  We also admired their perfectly-engineered camper, particularly their electrically adjusted air shocks to level the camper on uneven ground.  Then it was time to drive back to the city and out to the Trans-Kalahari Inn, where we booked in for three nights.  Monday morning saw us dropping Stanley at the Gearbox and Diff Doctor, running errands in town (chiefly getting measured for new glasses for both of us, taking advantage of favourable exchange rates and low labour costs to save a lot of money for something we both needed) and then catching a taxi back to the Trans-Kalahari for two lazy days.  Wednesday morning found us on an early flight to Johannesburg for ten days of work.  We would return on February 17th, ready for one last month of Stanley's Travels 1.0.

Etosha sunset

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Country, Interrupted: South Africa (and 24 hours in Lesotho!)--January, 2017

Thunder Bay, March 26

I am sitting on the third floor of my father's house, looking out on a grey, drizzly day; the clouds are obscuring the usual view of the Sleeping Giant peninsula out across the waters of Lake Superior.  Not an inspiring day to go outside, so it's an ideal day to write and catch up on the next few weeks of Stanley's Travels, in South Africa back in January.

When we entered South Africa from Swaziland on the afternoon of Friday, December 30, we had a basic plan for our swing through the country.  Despite buying the car in South Africa and spending over a month there, we had barely scratched the surface of this huge, diverse country.  We had spent a frustrating week vehicle-hunting in Cape Town, a couple of weeks in Kruger, and another frustrating couple of weeks in and around Sabie as we waited for repairs to Stanley.  Later we spent some time in and around Upington, and then camped near Delmas at the Blinkgat workshop, but the entire southern three quarters of the country was an unknown quantity to us.  

Our idea for this leg was to make our way south along the Kwa-Zulu coast, stopping to see wildlife in Imfolozi, to hike in the Drakensberg and in Lesotho, and then to take our time along the Wild Coast and Garden Route, and then past Cape Agulhas to Cape Town.  We would then finally turn north along the coast towards the Fish River Canyon and finally get to Namibia in time to catch a flight back to Johannesburg to do a week's worth of tour guiding in Kruger in the middle of February.  It seemed like a good way to maximize our exposure to the various biomes and mammal and bird species of South Africa.

Rhinos, Bushbabies and the Green Hills of Africa

Umfolozi's green and pleasant hills
We had thought of heading up to the coast at Saint Lucia for some diving, bird-watching and whale-watching, but it was the height of the domestic tourist season and the heavy traffic on the road convinced us that the coast was going to be jam-packed.  Instead we headed towards one of the lesser-known jewels of the South African national parks, Imfolozi-Hluhluwe.  Far less well-known in the outside world than Kruger, this park saved the southern white rhino from extinction at the end of the 19th century.  In 1895 there were somewhere between 20 and 50 white rhinos in all of South Africa, after a frenzy of uncontrolled hunting had driven the species to the brink of extinction.  All the survivors were in what would soon become Imfolozi, and over the next sixty years, the now-protected population increased to nearly 1000 individuals, which were then sent out to other parks and reserves in Project Rhino, headed by golfer Gary Player's older brother Ian.  This reduced the risk of one outbreak of disease or predation wiping out the species entirely, and now the population of southern white rhino stands at about 20,000 throughout southern Africa.  The sad irony, though, is that having saved the species once, it is now threatened with extinction again, with over 1000 white rhinos a year being poached every year to feed the insatiable Chinese market.

Who you lookin' at?
For some reason there is no camping allowed in Imfolozi-Hluhluwe, so we chose to stay not far from the park in a wonderful little campground at Bushbaby Lodge.  Set in a small game ranch full of various grazing animals, it was a perfect place to unwind over the New Year period.  Our favourite feature of the place is that a few thick-tailed galagos (Otolemur crassicaudatus, as opposed to the "true" bushbaby, Galago moholi, which is much smaller; we saw both species in Kruger last May) live in the bush on the property and come out at 8 pm every night to be fed pieces of fruit by the owner of the lodge.  We saw them one night at the feeding, and then another night right above Stanley as they moved through the treetops after the feeding.  They are ridiculously cute, and for the first time we heard their calls, which do sound a lot like a human baby in a bad mood and which give them their "bushbaby" name.  We also noticed, as we had just come from Madagascar, that they are very similar to some of the smaller nocturnal lemurs we had seen, and their scientific name, Otolemur, gives a nod in that direction.  Looking it up, it seems that lemurs, galagos, pottos and the lorises of Asia are all in one suborder of primates, the strepsirrhini, that arose in the 10 million years or so after the end of the dinosaurs.  The similarity is definitely visually striking!

Mother and child white rhino looking a bit thin in Umfolozi
The last day of 2016 found us up a bit sluggishly, and after a prolonged breakfast we pulled down Stanley's roof and headed to Imfolozi-Hluhluwe.  We drove the longer way around to the Imfolozi sector of the park, and the combination of the longer drive and the late getaway meant that we were there in the cauldron heat of midday.  We flashed our Wild Cards and got in for free; the Wild Cards might be the best value for money of anything we bought in South Africa throughout the entire year. It was ridiculously hot, and most of the animals were sensibly hiding in the shade somewhere.  We did, however, see lots of white rhinos just as we entered the park; with 1600 in residence, it's hard for all of them to hide out of sight!  We didn't get quite as close as we had at Hlane two days before, but we still got great views.  The rhinos looked thin, with their ribs sticking out; perhaps the prolonged drought, which was just in the process of breaking, had affected them.  We saw several mothers with calves, good news for the survival of the species.

Classic savannah in Umfolozi
Rhino poaching is one of the issues that unites almost all South Africans, and you see a lot of posters, billboards, stickers and online ads imploring people to protect these highly endangered iconic beasts ("charismatic megafauna").  The problem is that the poaching that is threatening to drive these animals into extinction isn't local villagers trying to feed their families; it's a highly organized, highly militarized transnational mafia syndicate using ex-military men from South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique.  If the market for rhino horn isn't effectively stamped out in China and Southeast Asia, I see little hope for the various rhino species, with extinction looming within a couple of decades.  One approach being tried in areas around Kruger and in KZN , as well in Namibia and Zimbabwe, is pre-emptively dehorning rhinos so that there's no horn for poachers to steal.  

We also had a few good close encounters with giraffes, a species that always makes me happy, as well as lots of baby impala, buffalo and wildebeest.  The landscape of Imfolozi was also a highlight; with the recent rain, the hills were verdantly green, and the sight of such green veldt after months of driving through drought-parched countryside was very pleasing to the eye.  We drove back to Bushbaby Lodge in a good mood, ready for the end of the year.

Mother zebra with very young baby 
Over the years the Hazenberg clan has evolved various traditions around New Year's Eve.  Gingerbread plays a key role, as we start eating the gingerbread structure that we have created over the previous week.  We started nibbling away at Gingerbread Stanley once we got back to camp, and shared a bit with the young kids of our camping neighbours Saul and Mandy.  Making lists of resolutions and of what were highlights and lowlights of the previous year are also essential, as are writing a few haiku about the past 365 days.  Terri good-naturedly played along with this, and as we waited for the stuffed chicken feast that she had prepared to bake in our little electric oven (since we hadn't been able to do this at Christmas in Swaziland, Terri was determined that we would have the benefit of a proper festive roast dinner), we both sat with paper and pen, surreptitiously counting syllables on our fingers and casting our minds back over the past 12 months of amazing travel.

A few of my 2016 haiku:

Wild animals pass
Living the African dream
In our metal box

Coppery sunsets
Over game-speckled grasslands
African journey

Trump gets elected
Cohen, Bowie, Ali die
2016 sucked!

I didn't say they had any literary merit!

We ate sumptuously well and then joined Saul and Mandy (a medical/physiotherapy couple from Durban) at their roaring campfire with glasses of whisky to toast out the old year.  By 10:30, sadly, we were so sleepy that we gave up on seeing midnight and headed to bed, sated and happy.  

New Year's Day was a lazy day spent in camp, having an outsized breakfast, catching up on laundry (the heat was resulting in a lot of sweaty clothes and bedding) and then walking around the property in search of birds.  It was a pleasant property to walk around, with lots of impala and birds, while across the fence we saw red duiker and strange all-black impala being bred on a game farm.  We lolled in the pool to beat the worst of the afternoon heat, and then went for a bicycle ride down the dirt road outside the lodge.  We didn't get very far, but it felt good to do some exercise after days of eating and driving.  We ate copious quantities of leftovers and packed up, ready for a timely departure the next morning.

Baby zebra
January 2nd saw us staggering out of bed at 5:20 for an early-morning game drive.  By 6 am we were packed up and underway, headed this time to the nearby gate of Hluhluwe.  It proved to be even hillier and prettier than the Imfolozi sector of the park, and once again we saw plenty of white rhinos on the way into the park.  There were many buffalo wallowing in the marshy areas near the rivers, along with plenty of zebras and a lone elephant.  We drove to a riverside picnic spot and there cooked up a lavish bacon-and-eggs feast.  We were slowly learning the South African style of game driving:  get up, grab a quick bite of rusks and coffee or tea, spend a couple of hours in the prime game-viewing opportunities just after dawn, then retire to a picnic spot for a big brunch.  We sat overlooking a river, but although we could hear hippos they weren't in our field of view, although we had some wooly-necked storks as compensation.  

After brunch we continued along the park, past more big buffalo herds, one with a few huge rhinos mixed in as they all wallowed contentedly in the mud of a waterhole.  We exited the park via a skyline drive that didn't give much game but provided stellar views out over the green hills of KwaZulu-Natal.  It was a very pleasant park, and we were glad that we made time for it.

Battlefields, Highlands and Valleys

By 10:30 we were underway, heading down the highway to Richards Bay, then heading inland after a grocery store run.  There was a great variety of landscape as we climbed past forestry plantations to grassy plateaus dotted with Zulu villages. We were headed into the blood-soaked Battlefields area of KZN, where the three biggest players in South African history (the Zulus, the Boers and the British) took turns fighting each other in all possible combinations, and our first stop was Isandlwana, a name that resonates with anyone familiar with British military history.

At Isandlwana
After a surprisingly long drive, the last hour or so on dirt roads, we finally made it to Isandlwana museum by 3:20 pm.  We paid our admission and hustled through the small but informative museum as we had just learned that the battlefield itself closed at 4 pm.  We drove out to the neatly-maintained cluster of monuments and had a pleasant twenty minutes to commune with the fallen in a beautiful expansive setting with sweeping views out over the highlands.  The battle of Isandlwana, on January 22, 1879, was the first major battle of the Anglo-Zulu War, and it was the most disastrous defeat that the British Army suffered at the hands of a non-European army during the entire 19th century.  The British general, Lord Chelmsford, was remarkably inept in his handling of the campaign, and his slackness about things like where to set up camp, how to defend it and sending out scouts led to disaster, as the camp was captured by the Zulu army and over 1300 British troops lost their lives.  

I have always felt the melancholic attraction of battlefields, and standing here, just Terri and I and the mute stone monuments, felt much more immediate and real than simply reading about the battle in a textbook.  We lingered as late as we could without getting locked inside the gate, and then drove off 20 km to the west towards Rorke's Drift, where survivors of Isandlwana and other troops kept in reserve desperately fended off Zulu attacks throughout the following night of the 22nd-23rd of January, 1879.  They barely managed to avoid being overrun, and the British propaganda machine made far more of the heroic defence of Rorke's Drift than of the catastrophe of Isandlwana.  The British went on to win that war in the end, but it had been a blood-soaked lesson in not underestimating one's adversary.  The site museum was closed, but we were still able to walk around the site, past various British and Zulu memorials, and it was a moving experience.

Stanley visits the battlefield of Isandlwana
Not having had enough of battlefields just yet, we drove until dusk along more secondary dirt roads, past small Zulu villages and high grasslands glinting in late-afternoon light until we reached one of the most important locations in the psychosphere of the Afrikaner nation: Blood River, the site of a battle on December 16th, 1838 between a column of Afrikaner Voortrekkers and a huge Zulu army.  We camped that night at the battlefield as the only campers in a huge campground.  It was slightly eerie, but it was also a wonderful spot, with hundreds of egrets and ibises nesting in the trees surrounding the caretaker's house, and a clear sky dominated by Venus and the crescent moon.  We cooked up a vast vegetable and lentil stew and sat out under the stars until late.

We woke up to clouds the next morning, and after breakfast we packed up, noticing (to our great annoyance) that our refrigerator was labouring non-stop and still the temperature inside was going up. Cursing our luck with fridges, we realized that we would have to spend some time getting it fixed again.  We locked up Stanley and walked over to the museum and battlefield memorial to get another history fix.  The main museum is privately funded by an Afrikaner cultural association and tells the story of the battle from the victors' point of view, as the heroic defence of 460 Afrikaners against 30,000 Zulu warriors.  It was perhaps the single most important event in the mythology of the Afrikaner people, and the date of the battle used to be a national holiday, the Day of the Covenant. The name reflects the vow taken by the devoutly religious Boers to build a church and celebrate that date as a Sabbath if they won the battle.  In the new post-apartheid South Africa, the date has been re-christened the Day of Reconciliation.
Terri at the Blood River monument

We walked down to the battlefield itself, where life-sized bronze replicas of the Voortrekkers' 64 ox-drawn wagons, drawn up into a circular defensive position as was the case during the battle, have marked the spot since 1972.  The Afrikaners put defensive barriers between the wagons, drew their cattle and people inside the circle and kept up a murderous fusillade with their rifles until they had killed 3000 or more Zulus, who eventually broke off their attack, leaving the Afrikaners in possession of the area.  

Across the dry riverbed, the South African government has recently erected its own museum, which tells the story from the point of view of the Zulus, whose lands the Afrikaners were overrunning in 1838.  We almost didn't get in; the place seemed to be locked, and nobody was around, even though it was long after the posted opening times.  We had had a scout around the grounds, already looking disheveled and poorly maintained despite it being only four years old, and were on our way back across the pedestrian Bridge of Reconciliation (with locked gates on either side and razor wire guarding the sides; there has to be some sort of metaphor there for the actual state of reconciliation in South Africa) when a museum employee, who looked as though he had just woken up from a nap, came running over to get us.  We looked around briefly, but we were in a hurry to get our fridge fixed, so I am afraid we gave the government museum short shrift.

The entire place is really a microcosm of South Africa's divisions and different views of history and the future; the Afrikaner family running the museum were quite bitter about relations with their Zulu neighbours, complaining of cut fences, cattle encroachment and theft.  The Afrikaner museum makes much of the feeling of being besieged, of standing alone against a hostile world, that played such a big role in apartheid, and the fact that they don't own the uncontested narrative of the battle seemed to eat at the soul of the man at the cashier's till.  The fact that there are two competing museums for the same site also speaks of a country that hasn't decided how it feels about its recent past.

We drove off around 10 am and within an hour we were in Dundee, a small provincial town, at D&G Electric, unloading the fridge.  We dropped it off for them to look at overnight and went to the surprisingly good campsite in town, Kwa-Rie, located in an old quarry (hence the name) and full of birds and flowers.  We set up camp and Terri roasted a succulent leg of lamb before a huge rainstorm rolled in.  We sat under our awning after supper reading and (in my case) playing guitar for the first time since before Madagascar, which felt very good indeed.

Me with Castor outside the Ladysmith Siege Museum
It poured rain much of the night, but we slept through the night, dry and warm inside Stanley.  In the morning we got a phone call saying that our fridge was repaired and ready to pick up.  We picked it up, paid our 350 rand (US$25) bill and heard that they found no noticeable leak, just a very dusty and inefficient compressor.  We thanked them and drove off under grey skies that turned to persistent rain as we approached the town of Ladysmith, site of a famous siege in the early days of the Boer War in 1899-1900.  We spent an informative hour in the Siege Museum, reading about the stoic toughness of the British civilians and soldiers trapped inside the town, waiting for relief that took three months to arrive thanks to the bumbling of the inept General Redvers Buller.  As one Afrikaner POW told his captors, "Your common British soldiers are the bravest in the world, and your lower-ranking officers are very, very good, but we Afrikaners depend on your British generals to save us!"  Outside Castor and Pollux, two field guns that played a big role in the siege, sit peacefully beside the main street.

We continued on our way in a steadily increasing downpour, headed for the Royal Natal Park in the northern Drakensberg for a few days of hiking.  We arrived and shoehorned ourselves into a powered site (power obtained by a long extension cord from the ablution block).  We lounged under the shelter of the awning, reading and getting hungry as the smells of baking scones and leftover lentil stew tormented our nostrils and wondering if we really wanted to spend the next month in the rain.  We thought not.

Nice light on the Drakensberg at Royal Natal Park

Waterfall in the Tugela Gorge in the Drakensberg
Thursday, January 5th saw us wake up to clearing skies, so we had a hearty breakfast (leftover scones) and set off on a hike.  The Royal Natal park is full of trails, and at random we chose a trail that led up the Cascades to Lookout Rock, then crossed the main river (a slightly hair-raising ford) before leading up to the lovely Gudu Falls and its surrounding forest, full of birds and wildflowers.  It took us several enjoyable hours, and we both revelled in the wonderful feeling of getting somewhere on our own two feet.  As we came back down, we got glimpses uphill under the clouds to where the 3000-metre peaks surrounding the Amphitheatre lurked.  We made it back to Stanley in the early afternoon under actual sunshine, and Terri celebrated by baking bread in our oven for the first time this trip, an experiment that went so well that she continued baking a couple times a week for the remainder of our trip.  After more leftover lentil stew, we went to bed with slightly tired legs and full bellies, content with our day of hiking.

Crickets procreating, Drakensberg
Our turnaround point in the Tugela Gorge
We had looked at the weather forecast, and it looked grim for the coming days, with continuous rain forecast for the next few days, although the morning promised to be rain-free.  We got up early, pulled down Stanley's roof, breakfasted on the delicious fresh bread and set off for a hike up the Tugela Gorge.  We got a bit lost on the way out of camp, but once we got going up the valley of the Tugela, it was a lovely hike, with great views of surrounding hills and rock formations and the heart of the Amphitheatre looming ahead of us.  We went through lots of patches of forest, full of birds including the golden-tailed woodpecker, a new species for us, and eventually came out at the entrance to the Tugela Gorge proper.  It looked as though further progress would be made wading along the river, and with rain threatening and time pressing, we decided to turn around there and start heading back to Stanley.  We lunched on the very last of the never-ending pot of lentils, then started our drive towards Meiringskloof, a nature reserve not far from the Lesotho border where we had decided to stay indoors for a couple of nights to let the rain pass.  It had been an interesting glimpse of the Drakensberg, but with the persistent rain, it wasn't the right season to camp and go hiking.  I would love to go back with more time and in better weather, as it seems to be a real paradise for hiking.

Drakensberg waterfall

Mountain Scenery Between the Rainstorms

It was an unexpectedly spectacular drive, past the huge Sterkfonteyn Reservoir and through the Golden Gate Highlands National Park, where we spotted, for the first and only time, the black (or white-tailed) wildebeest, a fairly uncommon species found only in these highlands.  We would have loved to have stopped and hiked and explored the park, but the rainclouds were gathering and we had kilometres to make.  We stopped in a tiny town, Clarens, that seems to be a counter-cultural hippie hangout in the Orange Free State highlands, to buy groceries, including a 5-kilogram bag of brown flour that would last Terri the rest of the trip.  We then drove to Meiringskloof, an oasis of loveliness nestled in a small box canyon (a "kloof", in Afrikaans), checked into our little cottage and prepared to wait out the storm.

It started to rain properly that evening, and kept going for the next 36 hours.  It would have been miserable to have been trapped inside Stanley and under our awning for that long, so we were glad that we had sprung for indoor accommodation.  It was a fairly large, comfortable, older cottage that had everything we needed:  electric power, a refrigerator, a fully-equipped kitchen, a big bed and a roof that didn't leak.  It was nice to cocoon ourselves indoors, read, write a Madagascar blog post, eat well (Terri baked another big loaf of bread), have a haircut (Terri is getting really good at handling my curls) and to sit beside our indoor fireplace in the evening keeping warm.  As it turned out, we were feeling the effects of a cyclone blowing in from the Indian Ocean, and there was a lot of rain. During our enforced day off we checked the weather a few times and came to a decision.  We had a 36-hour window of clear weather coming up during which we would drive across Lesotho, and then lots more rain after that.  It was time to pull the plug on this side of South Africa, skip much of the coast and head north towards the Kalahari and then Namibia.  It was just too rainy to make it worth our while to go to the Wild Coast or the Garden Route areas.

The next morning, Sunday, January 8th, we awoke to blue skies and lingered over our departure, first using wi-fi and then walking briefly around the lovely nature reserve that we had barely seen through the driving rain.  It was full of birds, and I thought I had heard galagos the night before, and it would be a great place to stay in good weather as well, with some nice hiking and dense forest to explore.  At last at 11:30 we pulled ourselves away and headed the short distance to the Lesotho border.

High up at AfriSki, Lesotho
It was a very quick and straightforward process to enter the country, and soon we were in the first town in Lesotho, the truly dismal Butha-Buthe.  No shops were open on a Sunday, and the town had an edgy seediness to it that didn't fill us with any desire to linger, so we drove on quickly along the A1.  We weren't sure what we were going to get in terms of roads:  once we left the lowlands, it looked like a lot of gravel roads ahead.  We started to climb steeply not far out of Butha-Buthe and it was a prodigious day of climbing.  We nearly boiled Stanley's radiator a couple of times, climbing in second or even in first gear at times on the precipitous inclines.  The scenery was spectacular, climbing from valley bottom past terraced fields into wild steep bushland that soon turned into high-altitude heath.  Villages perched picturesquely atop hilltops, and Basotho men walked by, heads held regally high under their broad-brimmed hats, blankets wrapped around their shoulders and white gumboots worn proudly.  It was sad to see almost every child we encountered running out to the road, hands outstretched in the universal gesture of begging; we heard later from cyclists that this stretch of road is bad for these same children throwing rocks at bikers.

Typical Lesotho highland scenery
We kept on climbing, right up to Moteng Pass (2840 m).  I knew that the highest peak in southern Africa, Thabana Ntlenyana, is 3482 m above sea level, so I figured that we were probably at our highest point atop the pass.  I was very wrong, as the road continued to undulate generally uphill across the highland plateau until we reached the surreal ski resort at Afriski, where the road topped out at 3220 m before dropping down to the buildings at the foot of the slope (at a mere 3010 m).  The resort contained the first really modern buildings we'd seen in the country, and was full of South African mountain runners, mountain bikers and enduro motorcyclists.  We stopped to give Stanley's overstrained engine a chance to cool off and had a slightly pricey but delicious lunch in the Sky Restaurant, which bills itself as the highest restaurant in Africa.  (This claim will contradict what we will encounter the next day.)  The views were spectacular, and I really wished that I had my touring bike to explore the country.  We hear that horse-trekking is the thing to do in these upland regions, but with our weather window closing the next day, there was sadly no time.

Terraced fields in eastern Lesotho
We continued onwards and, amazingly, still upwards, past heathland speckled with sheep, cows and horses tended by lone Basotho men.  It was windy and not very warm, but they seemed perfectly cozy inside their blankets and balaclavas.  Somewhere along the way we passed the unmarked highest point of our entire southern Africa trip, at 3275 m.  We had great late afternoon light on the landscape, on waterfalls like strings of candy floss draped over the steep green hillsides, and on the yellow wildflowers.  It was a stunning drive.  We drove past the turnoff to a pair of diamond mines and then a full-blown mine beside the road, its huge machinery and ominous tailing piles clashing violently with the wild beauty of the rest of the scenery.  Eventually we tumbled down, down, down to a mere 2200 m, to the turnoff to Lesotho's second city Makhotlong.  We turned away from it, eager to find a nice campground.  Following our GPS we took a very steep and gullied gravel road down across a bridge over a rushing river and then up the other side to a strange little campground at Molumong.  The place seemed half-abandoned, but there were still two employees there who directed us to camp outside the lodge.  We put up Stanley's roof and whipped up a quick dinner looking out and downwards across the valley.  The owner, when he turned up, was a grumpy Lesothan Basil Fawlty who was clearly in the wrong line of work.  We did our best to ignore him, and realized why one of his employees had fled home at speed when she saw his car coming along the track:  he was a mean-spirited grouch whom nobody wanted to be around.

Great view from our Lesotho campsite; pity about the owner!
We realized that after two days of driving, we were really not very far at all from where we had camped in Royal Natal Park; the mountains on the skyline were the ones that encircle the Amphitheatre.  This entire area would be a trekking paradise, just not in the rainy season.  That day we also made two more unwelcome discoveries:  our fridge was on the fritz again, for the third time in two weeks.  As well, our 4WD, repaired at great expense in Maun in September, was again not working, as the transfer case chain was worn out and jumped when we put it in 4WD mode.  We looked at the map and decided that we would drive as far as Port Elizabeth along the coast to get Stanley's problems sorted out in a big city before turning north towards the Kalahari and (we hoped) dry weather.

Lesotho cowboys along the road to the Sani Pass
The next day, Monday, January 9th, was another day of fabulous scenery.  We were up and off fairly briskly in the morning because we had the legendary Sani Pass ahead of us.  We expected the asphalt to end at any moment (it had stayed with us all day the previous day, until we had turned off the A1), but it never did.  Brand new perfect pavement led all the way up from Makhotlong to another 3240 m pass, through more glittering scenery that reminded me a lot of the Pamir Mountains in central Asia. From the crest of the pass we undulated a bit more, got more limitless views and then dropped steeply downhill towards Sani.  Sani Top proved to be a very Tibet-like plateau, full of Basotho herders and their sheep and horses, and at the far end, up a barely perceptible incline, was the famous Sani Pass itself.  So far it had all been relatively easy driving on asphalt, but that was about to change.  First, though we tucked into a big breakfast buffet at the Sani Pub, which at 2874 m claimed to be the highest pub in Africa.  Given that you can buy beer at the Sky Restaurant at Afriski, and that there's even a proper bar next door, this seems to be a post-truth, or at least an outdated, statement.  There was a great atmosphere inside the pub of South African 4x4 enthusiasts who had climbed up the steep dirt track from the South African side of the track, and of thousands of photos and posters and flags and mementoes from the past 60 years of driving, skiing, hiking and drinking at this historic spot.

At (almost) the highest point of Stanley's Travels so far
Terri at the top of the Sani Pass; that sign contradicts the one at AfriSki!
Stanley crossing a stream on the track down from the Sani Pass
We finished our food, took a couple of photos and then climbed back into Stanley, ready for what looked like it was going to be a seriously challenging descent.  We passed quickly through Lesotho customs again, less than 24 hours since we had entered the country.  Terri was at the wheel, as she always was for any off-road or 4WD sectors of the trip, and now she had the added challenge of not having 4WD to depend upon.  She was tense, but after 20 minutes of very slow, methodical descent of steep, muddy gravel switchbacks the worst was over and we bumped down the still steep but not terrifying rest of the way down to the South African customs post 1200 vertical metres below.  The driving wasn't enormously difficult (I think we handled tougher conditions on the way back into Zambia from Malawi along the M14 road), but the consequences of any mistake or equipment failure would have been catastrophically fatal, so Terri was utterly relieved, and completely mentally drained, when she finally handed over the keys at the beginning of asphalt.  It had been a spectacular day in Lesotho, but now it was time to make some serious distance towards Port Elizabeth.

Retreating from the Rains

Dramatic Drakensberg scenery
The scenery at the foot of the imposing Drakensberg was lovely, with green meadows, horse farms, reservoirs, country inns and fishing spots.  We stopped in at Himeville to buy diesel (we had burned through a lot of fuel on those steep climbs!) and Underberg to refill our (still failing) fridge.  From then on it was a long and not very interesting drive through heavy traffic past the overpopulated, denuded hillsides of the former homeland of Transkei.  We eventually gave up the struggle at the dismal little town of Qumbu, checked into the slightly dodgy Stone B&B and dragged our stove inside to heat up some leftover beef stew.

The following day we put in a very long day of 622 km, driving south through recurrent rain,  The traffic continued to be brutally heavy most of the way to Port Elizabeth.  There were intriguing-looking turnoffs early in the day towards the Transkei and Ciskei coasts, but it was raining and we were on a mission.  As we crossed into Eastern Cape province, the vegetation changed dramatically from African bush to Mediterranean maquis, or fynbos as it's known in South Africa.  When we finally got to Port Elizabeth, we rejected three campgrounds before finally ending up at the very professional and beautifully located Willows campground 20 km outside town.  The coast was windswept and pounded by big waves, but the campground had two sheltered tidal swimming pools and a good atmosphere about it.

Our three days in Port Elizabeth were productive, if expensive.  The first day we ditched our old, dying fridge in favour of a new, smaller but much better Engel model which had the added benefit of being easy to fix if something went wrong.  It was expensive (8500 rand, or about 630 US dollars) but we had confidence that it would last and hold its value.  We also bought new poles for our awning to replace the bent (and repaired, but still fragile) old ones.  We also (after months of searching) found some new flag stickers to put on the side of Stanley for our Lesotho and Swaziland visits, and got Rwanda and Tanzania stickers for future trips.  On the second day we got a blown rear shock replaced and had our air conditioning re-gassed; the technician said that there was barely any gas left in the system, and we noticed immediately that the AC actually cooled us down.  Finally on the third day we dropped the car off at Llew's Auto Electric to get various electrical issues sorted. Frustratingly, few of them got fixed (our cruise control still didn't work, our reverse light still didn't work, and our Hella plug in the back of the cab was still disconnected.  Terri was not happy!)  On the positive side, though, the spaghetti wiring of our two storage batteries was now rationalized into something reasonable, and we were good to go.  We returned for one last night at the Willows, ate some delicious steak and drank good red wine, and got ready to get out of the windswept coastal area.

Terri cycling in the Baviaanskloof
We had one detour to make first, though.  We had heard great things about the Baviaanskloof Nature Reserve, and it was sort of on our way north from Port Elizabeth.  We drove out from town on Saturday, January 14th, via a snack and shopping stop at Tolbos, a well-known tourist stop in the farming town of Patensie.  From there the road continued upstream into a narrow canyon (another "kloof) and turned to dirt.  We found a lovely campsite at Bruintjieskraal, a family farm with widely-spaced riverside campsites (we were lucky enough to get number 12, the nicest of the lot), set up camp and then cycled off along the road for a bit of an exploration.  The scenery was pleasant, if not overly dramatic, and I itched to go hiking up into the narrow clefts of the rock that towered above the river.  Instead we contented ourselves with some cycling, then headed back to our oasis, swam and set up a great campfire.  I even pulled out the fishing rod and tried my luck in the river without any success.  As we sat around the campsite after a wonderful steak dinner, I played guitar and we stared up at the stars, reflecting on how big a part our campsites, campfires and dinners played in the enjoyable fabric of our lives.

Wonderful view from our Baviaanskloof campsite
The next day was a day of mechanical frustrations.  It started after we had packed up, ready to roll by 8:00.  I turned the key and.....nothing happened.  At all.  We opened the hood, stared at the engine, I tried a few things, but after a frustrating 45 minutes I admitted defeat and cycled off to see if any help could be obtained from other campers.  I struck out there, but I went to the house of the owner and found the owner and a neighbouring farmer watching rugby.  One of them drove over to help and promptly spotted the problem:  one battery lead had worked its way loose; it wasn't all the way off, but the connection wasn't sturdy enough for the current that ignition demands.  A quick tighten and we were on our way, an hour and a half later than planned, feeling very foolish at our lack of car engine know-how.  Later that day the radio conked out mysteriously, and just as mysteriously came back to life again.  Towards the end of the day a warning light that we didn't recognize came on.  After much Googling, we couldn't figure it out, and we pulled over in the small town of Hanover to buy diesel and see if we could find a mechanic.  The gas attendants called a guy who showed up, looking distinctly tired and hungover, who had a look at things and diagnosed a fuel filter that was full of water.  He drained a prodigious amount of water out of the filter (somewhere we had gotten some pretty low-quality diesel!) and the light went out, although it came on again 50 km down the road, probably due to a small electrical fault.  In the meantime, though, I had crawled underneath Stanley to see if I could spot any issues, and found that our transfer case was losing oil.  We decided to have it seen to in Kimberley, paid our mechanic and drove off in search of camping.

It was a pity that we were so distracted by mechanical issues that day, as we drove through some great scenery.  We left behind the coastal fynbos and entered the vast extent of semi-arid land known as the Karoo that makes up more than half of the land area of South Africa.  We climbed up over interior mountain passes and across sweeping plains with great views and wonderful light.  A cold wind raked the landscape and added to the feeling of being in the beautiful middle of absolutely nowhere.  We were pleasantly surprised at how pretty we both found the Karoo.  As we drove off from Hanover, we saw hundreds of kestrels swarming in the air and in the trees; our mechanic said that they stayed in the area in vast numbers for a couple of months and then disappeared for the rest of the year.

We found a decent campsite at Kambro, 20 km north of Britsville.  With all the delays, we ended up rolling up in the dark at 8:40 pm, tired and out of sorts.  We still managed to set up camp and get supper cooked by 9:30, grateful for lines of trees that gave us a bit of shelter from the searching tendrils of wind.

Social weaver nest complex at Leeupan
Monday, January 16th found us up early after a night spent cozy inside Stanley despite the howling winds outside.  We were on the road by 8:15 and pulled into the big, historic mining town of Kimberley by 11:30. We went straight to Kimberley Gear and Diff and dropped Stanley off to have his transfer case (and its various leaks) inspected.  We pulled out our bicycles and cycled off to the Mitsubishi dealership to ask about ordering a new transfer chain.  We spent a few hours at a local mall, eating and using wi-fi while we waited for news on Stanley.  At 3:15 we got a phone call summoning us back.  The transfer case needed a new chain, which would take days and days.  We weren't willing to wait in Kimberley for days, so we decided to keep driving and topping up the transfer case oil every day until we got to Windhoek.  By 5 pm we were driving out of Kimberley in search of a campsite; once again we turned down two of them (one didn't exist anymore, and one existed but was an overgrown municipal place that reminded us unhappily of Die Eiland in Upington).  We were driving directly into the setting sun, and had to pull over for ten minutes because I couldn't see a thing.  Eventually we found a great campsite after dark at Red Sands.  We set up camp, cooked up dinner and went to bed tired.

Stanley at our idyllic campsite at Leeupan
We woke up the next morning to a beautiful sunny day, with the wind finally dying down.  Red Sands, once we saw it by daylight, proved to be a delightful spot.  Somewhere after Kimberley we had entered the South African part of the Kalahari, and the red sand dunes around us were a visible reminder of it.  We spent the morning on a project that we had been putting off for some time.  I had heard from my father that he had been diagnosed with thyroid cancer and was going to undergo surgery and radiation therapy; it was clear that I was going to have to go home in late February or early March.  We wanted to sell Stanley, and to do that we needed to have a decent-looking ad.  We spent the morning setting up Stanley and his vast array of contents in various photogenic arrangements.  I shot a bunch of photos and we wrote up the text of an ad, ready to put on various online sites.

In Love with the Kalahari

It wasn't until 1:30 that we got packed up again and rolling northward into the Kalahari, headed towards Leeupan.  It was an easy trundle, at least until we ran off the end of pavement 20 km before van Zylsrus and onto some very washboarded dirt.  We made our way gingerly along the road and eventually made our way to the "bush camp" on the Leeupan farm, where we set up shop for the next three nights.  We were both very happy at the prospect of not doing any driving for two days, after lots of long days of driving and mechanical mishap.  We were completely alone in the campsite, and we set out to explore our surroundings.

The dozens of entrances underneath a sociable weaver complex
Leeupan is a place we had heard of on our last swing through the area; when we were staying at Sakkie Se Arkie in Upington, our neighbours had told us about it, telling us that this was where the Discovery Channel's Meerkat Manor documentaries were filmed.  As we hadn't seen a single meerkat yet, despite lots of time in the Kalahari, it had stuck in our minds as a place we really wanted to see. We had a good scout around that afternoon but didn't find any meerkats.  The scenery and wildlife, though, were still pretty impressive.  There were a couple of enormous colonial nest complexes built by sociable weavers, and several big leopard tortoises wandering around, stirred from their torpor by the recent rains.  Some springbok cantered by in the distance, and we saw a couple of ground squirrels which had us briefly convinced that they were meerkats.  The Kalahari was almost unrecognizable from when we had last visited in September; rains had brought out fresh green grass and a carpet of dazzling yellow wildflowers.  The multi-year drought seemed finally to be ending, and the eruption of life was wondrous to see.  That evening, once we put up our lights, we were besieged by thousands of swarming flying ants and moths, also taking advantage of the rainfall to get out and procreate.

This little sociable weaver can build gargantuan condominium complexes
That evening we stoked up a big campfire with some of the dry, hot-burning wood lying around on the ground.  I braaied a big boerewors and we sat out under a canopy of millions of stars in a moonless sky, completely content.  It felt good to have left behind the constant rain and crowded roads of the coast for the solitude and clear skies of the desert.  When we had first come to South Africa, neither Terri nor I were big fans of deserts, but our time in the Botswanan Kalahari had converted us, and it felt great to be back in a landscape and biome that had given us such great memories a few months previously.

Meerkat standing guard
Ooh La La, one of the stars of Meerkat Manor, Leeupan
The next day passed very pleasantly, with yoga, juggling, guitar, birdwatching and a long run.  Terri tried to beat the heat (it was seriously warm in the middle of the day!) by taking a prolonged dip in a rather algae-rich water tank.  We had our awning up on its new poles, and its shade was a life-saver in the desert heat.  I spotted the biggest leopard tortoise I had ever seen, but when I ran back to get Terri and show her, I couldn't find it again.  I couldn't believe that it could have moved fast enough and found enough cover to disappear.  Finally in the afternoon we walked over across the main road to the farmhouse to talk to Lorraine, the owner, and ask about meerkats.  We knew that the adjacent property was the home of the Kalahari Meerkat Project, but that the animals often strayed over onto Leeupan property.  Lorraine asked her farm workers where they had seen meerkats recently, and at 5 pm we went out in search of them.  At first there were no sightings, but suddenly there they were, a group of almost a dozen little meerkats.  They were quite a bit smaller than I had expected, and much more frenetically active than other species of mongoose.  We stood and watched them for a while, taking photos of them digging rapidly in search of scorpions to eat and occasionally, comically, sprawling on their bellies to cool off on a patch of freshly turned colder sand.

A meerkat cooling his belly on freshly-turned sand, Leeupan
Terri with a French volunteer doing fieldwork for the Kalahari Meerkat Project
After a while a young Frenchwoman appeared with a big backpack out of which was sticking a radio antenna.  It was one of the volunteers from the Kalahari Meerkat Project, come to do one of her thrice-daily observations and measurements. These meerkats have been radio-collared (they put them on the dominant females in each group) and observed for nearly 25 years, giving a wealth of field data. Their weights are measured every morning, noon and night (the volunteers put a small treat on the scales and the meerkats happily hop up to be weighed), while their behaviour and interactions are closely observed and recorded for half an hour each time.  The volunteer, Catherine, had a big keypad that had all the possible behaviours on it, and we watched her pushing buttons that recorded the event, the time and the exact GPS location.  We left her to her work and wandered off, very happy at our meerkat encounter.  That evening we had another perfect campfire, sitting contentedly under the stars eating lentil stew and then playing guitar.  That night we slept with the roof hatch open on Stanley:  the temperature was perfect, but eventually the moon woke us up, shining in through the hatch onto our faces.  It was a great way to sleep.

One of the many leopard tortoises we saw in the Kgalagadi
We had one more lazy day at Leeupan the next day; it was such an idyllic spot that it was hard to tear ourselves away.  We enjoyed our lifestyle of complete off-the-grid independence that Stanley gave us, and it was hard to face driving again.  After a day of reading, sorting meerkat photos, running, yoga and napping, we had a great sunset to watch atop a nearby dune before braaing lamb chops over the campfire.

African wild cat spotted near the road close to Leeupan
Huge sociable weaver complex near Twee Rivieren
We were now on our way to Namibia, but there was one final Kalahari detour to make.  Back in September we hadn't been able to get the necessary camping reservations to cross the enormous Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park from the eastern end in Botswana to the western end in South Africa. We had heard lots of good things about predator sightings in the South African sector, so we drove off towards Twee Rivieren for one last hit of Kalahari wildlife.  It was a great drive, with the unexpected bonus of sighting an African wild cat (a small predator usually only seen at night as a pair of eyes glowing eerily in a spotlight's glare); it was running along a fenceline beside the road, probably looking for a way in.  It hid inside a bush, but we had seen it and I managed to get a couple of photos before it ran off, still parallel to the fence.  No sooner had we climbed in and driven off then we passed a truly enormous Nile monitor lizard (or leguaan, as it is known in South Africa).  All the way along the dirt road, we saw leopard tortoises of all sizes crawling, surprisingly quickly.

Southern ground squirrels congregating near the mouth of their burrow
Since the South African dirt road was so miserable, we decided to do as the locals do and drive through Botswana.  A rough dirt road led to a tiny border crossing at Middelputs, where formalities took no time at all and we only had to pay for road tolls and third party car insurance, a steal at 100 pula (USD 10).  The perfect new asphalt road along the Botswana side of the border, along which we had driven in early October, disappeared rapidly under our tires, and in less than an hour we were crossing back into South Africa and turning north towards Twee Rivieren.  We checked into the SANParks Twee Rivieren restcamp right at the entrance to the park and relaxed for the afternoon in the swimming pool.  It seemed crowded that night in the campsite after three nights of perfect solitude, even though there can't have been more than a dozen vehicles there.

Radio-collared lioness out for an early-morning stroll near Twee Rivieren

Magnificent lion near Twee Rivieren
We got up early the next morning, determined to find some cheetahs and lions.  We were driving by 6:00 am, just in time for the camp gates to open.  We made our way north towards Rooiputs in surprisingly chilly conditions.  For the first 15 km or so, we saw almost nothing, but then we had an embarrassment of wildlife riches.  First up was a lioness, wearing a radio collar that looked amazingly like a cowbell.  She was stalking along parallel to the road, looking wonderful in the low-angle light of early morning that lit up the tall grass.  Next we had several encounters with black-backed jackals, including quite a young pup who was resting under a tree waiting for mom to return with breakfast.  There were plenty of springbok and gemsbok next, and then we finally had our first cheetah encounter after months and months of looking:  an adult females and her two subadult children, silhouetted against the sky atop a dune near Rooiputs campsite.

A big gaggle of baby ostriches out for a stroll 
Baby black-backed jackal waiting for mom to return with breakfast

Red-necked falcons

We were pretty excited by the cheetahs, even if we didn't have great photos because they were too far. There was more, and better, to come, though.  As we drove north, past Rooiputs (on the Botswana side of the border, this is a truly idyllic place to camp, but like all the good campsites on the Botswana side, it books up very quickly), we spotted what seemed to be a party of small korhaans. Closer inspection revealed that they were, in fact, baby ostriches!  There were 16 of them in total, out for a morning walk with a male and two female adults.  They were impossibly cute, and watching them bumbling along with their parents trying to keep them under control was pretty funny.  Not much further along, we saw cars stopped and realized that there was a pride of lions:  a big male (with the very dark, almost black mane of the Kalahari lions), two females and three babies, all lounging in the shade under a tree.  We watched them for a good while before heading north for a bit.

Mother cheetah at Rooiputs
Morning was drawing on, and we were getting hungry, so we turned back towards Twee Rivieren, passing the lion pride again (still comatose).  We realized that there was a small track parallel to the main road, so we turned onto it in search of the cheetahs.  This was a lucky decision as, not far from where we had seen them before, right on the track in front of us were the cheetahs, lounging in the shade.  We edged as close as we dared without scaring them, turned off the engine and watched from a distance of maybe three metres.  The mother was magnificent, and the two cubs, almost fully grown, were equally impressive.  We sat there, barely daring to breathe, unwilling to have the spell broken.  Fifty metres away, on the main road, two or three vehicles stopped to watch the cheetahs through binoculars, but luckily nobody figured out how to get onto our little track, and we had our close encounter all to ourselves.  I snapped away madly, then just sat and watched, mesmerized and unable to believe our good luck.

Sub-adult cheetahs near Rooiputs
Leopard tortoise nibbling at the sand on the jeep track
Eventually the mother got interested in some springbok that were not too far away.  Her ears perked up, she sat up and then remained motionless, staring at the prey.  We hoped that she would suddenly explode into pursuit, but after a while she sauntered off towards the Rooiputs waterhole followed by her two daughters, all of them the picture of elegance, their pelts shining in the sun.  We drove off back towards Twee Rivieren ecstatic:  cheetahs at last, and so close to us!  The drive back brought us more ostriches (not babies this time, sadly), gemsbok, several falcons of various species, more jackals and finally a secretarybird, one of our all-time favourite birds.  We arrived back at camp thoroughly satisfied with our morning's work.

Springbok mothers and child
A lazy afternoon by the pool followed, along with sorting through hundreds of photos from one of our best game-viewing mornings of the entire trip.  We braaied up more delicious boerewors that night.  Our sleep was interrupted that night several times by the unmistakeable sound of lions roaring. We woke up determined to find them, and another early-morning getaway after an unforgettable red sunrise, we soon found the lions.  For once, since we were so early, we were the first on the scene, and we were pleased to have spotted the lions for ourselves.  It was a big pride, with no fewer than nine lions, including three large males.  They weren't doing much, but their size was impressive, and it was fun trying to spot more and more of them scattered throughout the bush; we saw only three at first, but one by one the others revealed themselves.

Ostriches on patrol in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park
We had a profusion of leopard tortoises that morning, along with numerous kori bustards (including one very impressive displaying male that was so puffed up that we couldn't recognize it at first as a kori).  There were big nursery day-care groups of springbok babies teetering on their matchstick legs (which would doubtless make great cheetah food), more gemsbok running off up the dunes, a few sturdy-looking hartebeest and lots of ostriches.  We struck out on cheetah, but after yesterday's encounter, we weren't complaining.

Gemsbok (oryx) fleeing at our approach
Hartebeest near Twee Rivieren
By 10:00 am we were back at camp, buying a few supplies in the camp store, eating pies and planning our escape from the country.  It was Sunday, January 22nd and we had been in South Africa proper for a little more than three weeks, racking up a ridiculous 6000 km in that time despite missing much of what we had originally planned to see.  (In contrast, it took us five and a half months to do our first 20,000 km.) It hadn't turned out at all as we had originally thought, but our time at Leeupan and in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park had made up for our frustrations with the rainy weather and mechanical gremlins that had plagued us earlier.  We had enjoyed South Africa, but now it was time to turn our sights towards everyone's favourite country to visit in southern Africa:  Namibia.

Male kori bustard puffed up and displaying
It was an easy drive to the border at Rietfontein, across a landscape that was surprisingly dramatic. We crossed a couple of big, wide-open pans, one of them full of water after the recent rains.  By 1:00 pm we were going through border formalities and driving into Namibia, my 132nd country and Terri's 78th.

Lion cub resting in the shade near Twee Rivieren