I'm finally getting around to writing my TR for our great trip to Namibia in November. Thank you to all the TA folks who answered my questions and gave advice.
This was the second trip to southern African for me and my s/o, having spent several weeks in South Africa, Botswana, and Zambia in early 2010. This trip, we decided to go to Namibia as well as return to Botswana, as part of a much longer, two month trip to Africa and the Middle East.
We were supposed to fly to Windhoek from Istanbul via Johannesburg, but we ended up stranded in New York for several days during Hurricane Sandy, so we skipped our planned week in Istanbul and got the first flight out that we could from JFK to Frankfurt where we spent two nights before taking the direct flight on Lufthansa from Frankfurt to Windhoek. This was a very long, but pleasant flight in business class.
After quickly going through customs and immigration, we were met promptly by a Wilderness Safaris representative and taken to our hotel, the Hotel Heinitzburg, where we stayed for two nights. This was a nice hotel with good views over the city and pleasant service, but next time I think we'd try the Olive Exclusive. We stayed at the hotel the entire time, trying to get over jet lag, and watching U.S. Election results.
After two nights, Wilderness Safaris picked us up to take us to the airport for our flight to Serra Cafema. The rep drove us around Windhoek for some sightseeing first, and Windhoek struck us as a nice town that we wouldn't have minded strolling around in, had we had our wits about us more.
I was nervous about the flight to Serra Cafema. Originally we had been booked to stay at Skeleton Coast Camp, but when they closed, my hesitancy in going with Serra Cafema was the increased flight time. After a small plane crash in Costa Rica many years ago, before which I was already a nervous flier, I've had to work hard to overcome terror in small planes. I did pretty good on our last Africa trip, but those flights were much shorter.
The first leg of the Serra Cafema flight was on a small plane, taking about an hour and fifteen minutes. By this time it was also afternoon, and the thermals I came to learn cause flights to be MUCH more bumpy as the day gets later. Schedule early flights in summer if possible! I utilized the airsickness bag for the first time on a flight ever, but was pleased to note when I got off the plane when we stopped, I believe in Damaraland, to throw it away, that many other recent bags were in the trashbin. :-) I was beyond thrilled to get off the plane.
We were transferred to one of the larger twin prop planes. There were bumps, but the flight was not as scary nor did it feel as turbulent due to the size of the plane, although it was long, another hour plus, to Serra Cafema, where we checked in for three nights.
We met our guide, Gert, who took us on the 45 minute drive from the airstrip to camp, driving past a few small Himba villages, with amazing views of the stunning Angolan mountains and many herds of oryx struggling in the intense heat. The camp is a jewel set on the green banks of the Kunene River. First impressions were excellent as we were met by management, given drinks, and shown around. The public lounge and dining areas were beautiful, and as can be expected from a Wilderness Safaris premier camp, the villas were just gorgeous. We settled in, the s/o immediately fell asleep and I didn't see him up again until morning. I went to the dining area for pre-dinner cocktails, but didn't make it to dinner either. During cocktails, Gert met with me and we laid out a plan for the next few days. We started slow the next day with a late morning call and cruise down the river where we saw crocs and Gert pointed out many birds and plants. We got out on the Angolan side of the river on a small beach for drinks before cruising slowly back.
The temperatures were about 110F and higher, but I adjust well to the heat, so one afternoon Gert took me on a hike up the river, up to the dunes, and then climbed back down one into camp. We walked with some oryx coming up from the river, followed snake trails, and got treated to amazing views of the rapids further down the river.
Of course the main attraction here is the Himba. This is probably the last generation of Himba who will live in traditional villages in traditional ways, in fact we already saw big changes. One of the young women, a twin, in one of the "villages" (really just five small family huts) had come to work at Serra Cafema. After experiencing the shower and electricity and nice lodgings, she had come back to her village and started to build a much larger hut than anyone else! One of the women in camp had a small boy who was naked, except for a small pair of Crocs, which were so hilariously out of place in this most remote of homes. The women we saw were still wearing traditional garb and had beautiful ochre stained skin. We bought some of their more traditional handicrafts they had for sale, and learned some basic Himba so we could converse a little and say thank you.
Gert introduced us to one woman named "Crocodile" who had part of a breast and side bitten off by a crocodile attack when she was down by the river getting water. Later, back at camp, a pleasant young man serving us asked us if we had met his mother, Crocodile. While few choose to do so, it is nice that Wilderness gives the local Himba the opportunity to work at the camp. In fact, one of the reasons we chose WS for this trip as well as much of our previous trip, is because of their unique initiatives, like Children in the Wilderness, and their work with the local people in the areas of the camps. Our guide also noted that they provide boat trips across the narrow but crocodile-infested river for families who are separated and want to go visit each other on the other side of the border in Angola or vice versa.
Another day we drove into the magnificent Hartmann Valley. Other guests rode quad bikes, although we decided that wasn't for us. I enjoyed the quiet and peacefulness of walks and the unique culture and harsh environment.
I suppose Serra Cafema isn't for everyone, but for me, it was perfect, and three nights was the perfect amount of time.
The food was quite good, it doesn't stand out for me like it did at later camps, but I do remember that I felt like it was better than I had experienced at previous WS lodges, especially the vegetarian options. Because of the heat, I just was not feeling like eating any meat on this trip, and they obliged. Also it was a revelation that the best Bloody Mary I ever had in my life was made by a bartender in this remote place!
Our next stop was Little Ongava in Etosha. We stayed on the larger plane the entire time this time, although we did stop once. Despite some bumps, it wasn't bad. We were met by our guide Franco, one of the first to have gone through WS extraordinary Children in the Wilderness camps, we would learn later, from an orphanage in Windhoek. I thought I had run out of superlatives for safari guides. Really, I don't know how it happens, but every single one it seems like for us has been better than the last, whether it was SA, Botswana, or now, Namibia. We loved Franco and wanted to pack him up and take him home. Little Ongava is a stunning property, perhaps the nicest we've ever stayed at in Africa. The plunge pool overlooking the vast private game reserve, the separate living room with stocked bar, the gorgeous bedroom and bathroom. The manager, Michael, a Namibian, is so proud of his country and his camp, and it shows in every single way.
One night we were kept awake by a mewling in our room. The next morning we investigated and found a small furry animal in the crevices of one of the walls of our room. We told Michael, who came to look, and identified the animal as a baby genet. After we returned from a lengthy day in Etosha with Franco, we learned that Michael had opened the doors to our room and sat watching for a long time, hoping mama would come for the baby. When that failed, he consulted books to discover the genets nesting habits, and placed baby in a spot outside he hoped would encourage mama to return. This kind of caring is so remarkable and rare today.
Michael's knowledge and love of wine and food was also evident in his careful wine selections and fabulous chef. It was the best food we had in Africa, despite stiff competition from Chef Katrina at Zarafa Camp in Botswana. Little Ongava went out of their way to serve me vegetarian offerings that were innovative and so good, they made my fellow carnivorous guests drool.
Sitting in a blind with Franco watching black and white rhino mere feet away at the Ongava waterhole was a fantastic experience. We also enjoyed Etosha, which had an almost surreal array of animals at the waterholes, but I was put off by the buses and cars racing around spitting up dust and the tourists banging on their car doors. I have been spoiled perhaps, by private reserve and Botswana experiences, but I was really taken aback.
We stayed three nights at Little Ongava, and while it was "enough", I suppose, I could have stayed longer. I would have liked another day in the Ongava reserve.
Our last stop in Namibia was Little Kualala. The highlight here, of course, being the Sossusvlei dunes. My relatively good luck streak with the small planes came to an end. The small plane ride from Little Ongava to Little Kulala, with a stop in Windhoek, was the worst flights of my life. I cried on the first leg. I'm not a crier, and I even like scary roller coasters and rides. But the combination of the incredible bumpiness, the very small plane, and the length of the flight, just about killed me. At the stop in Windhoek, it took a lot of my will and determination to get back on the plane for the remainder of the flight. I will note the pilot was unsympathetic, and also ate a sandwich during the flight, which pretty much ensured I was incredibly nauseous in those close quarters. But we made it.
Little Kulala makes a great impression. The architecture is just gorgeous and so unique. Our guide, Petrus, was engaging. The villa itself wasn't as special as some of the other ones we had experienced, but it was lovely with red lechwe and oryx out the door, a small plunge pool on a private deck, and my favorite feature, a rooftop deck where we spent a night drinking a bottle of wine and then sleeping under the amazing Namibian stars. The air conditioning did have a hard time keeping up with the 115F temperatures, but what can you do, it's Namibia in summer. We did spend time both in our very cold plunge pool as well as the slightly warmer and refreshing community pool.
We loved the waterhole where oryx, impala,ostrich, and, at night, owls visited. Our day at Sossusvlei was magnificent, especially because our wonderful guide, Petrus, ensured that we climbed Big Daddy early before the heat got too bad, and kept us ahead of the groups, so we got a lovely shady spot for the excellent lunch that was packed. He also took us one day to the truly amazing Neuras, a winery with fantastic food and a very small, but incredible, up and coming wine production and gardens. I look forward to the wines in the future that this place will produce, what they have now is a good start!
Petrus showed us the farm he grew up in on our way to Neuras, shared his music with us, and was really the highlight of our stay here. His knowledge of the area and willingness to go slow and find the unique, small things (baby jackals, baby ostrich, a lizard dancing in defense of the heat of the sand), really made it all so special.
Our three nights here was also I felt like the right amount. I don't like stays shorter than that in safari or safari style camps, for me, 3-4 nights just works (I had three nights in each of our two camps in Botswana this time and wished they were 4-5 nights though). I will say that the management, food, and service (other than our guide) was not up to the same standards at Little Kulala as Little Ongava and Serra Cafema or the Botswana camps we also stayed at. In fact, we saw very little of management during our stay, which has not been the norm at other Wilderness camps, and this became problematic at points. But overall, I highly recommend the camp as a jumping off point for the dunes, particularly. Watching the array of colors, from pink, to orange, to red, to golddust, as the sun played on the dunes was remarkable.
I am overall really thrilled we went to Namibia. I did not fall in love with it as I did Botswana, probably because I am more into the wildlife experience Botswana offers, but there is nothing in the world like Namibia and everyone should go at least once! I don't know that I'll return, but I don't have a moment of regret about it, even the terror in the skies! :-)