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Of hippos and hot air balloons: a 2-week honeymoon in Namibia

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Just returned from 2 weeks in this fabulous country.

Before I get into the details of our trip, I'd like to say a heartfelt thank you to all those on this board that helped out with suggestions and advice. And thank you to the long-standing Namibia fans (Kavey et al.) that put the idea of visiting Namibia into my head in the first place! Your help was invaluable.

Our itinerary:
22 May: Flight with BA from London to Windhoek via Jo'Burg
23 - 25 May: Okonjima Bush Lodge
25-27 May: Etosha Park, Halali Camp
27-28 May: Ongava Main Lodge
28-29 May: Olive Grove guest house, Windhoek
29 May - 2 June: Impalila Island Lodge
2-3 June: Olive Grove guest house
3-5 June: Little Kulala
5 June: Flight home

A few general comments:
The flight with BA was fine: we were early enough checking in at Heathrow to request bulkhead seats which made a big difference to our comfort. The flight from Jo'burg to Windhoek is operated by Comair, but to all intents and purposes was a BA flight (same uniforms, logos, etc.).

Weather was warm and sunny every day - up to around 26 C to 30 C in the daytime and 5 to 10 C at night. Nights were quite warm at Etosha and surprisingly chilly in the Caprivi region, all things considered.

We rented a satellite phone from Europcar on arrival because we thought our mobile phones wouldn't work. In retrospect this wasn't really worth it as we managed to get a decent reception on our mobiles at all the camps, except Little Kulala.

We rented a Toyota Corolla (Group B) from Europcar for the first 6 days of our trip. It was fine, even on the rough Etosha roads, but if I could do it again, I'd probably opt for a Toyota Condor or a 4WD for comfort.

We booked the entire itinerary (except London-Windhoek flights) through Cardboard Box Travel Shop (www.namibian.org). I would wholeheartedly recommend their service to any potential visitors to Namibia - excellent advice, friendly service, extremely flexible and always prompt in answering my (numerous) emails.

Our "top ten"
Best room: Ongava
Best bathroom: Ongava
Best view from room: Little Kulala/Impalila Island
Best dinner: Okonjima
Best breakfast/brunch: Okonjima
Best dessert: Impalila
Best animal sighting: Elephants swimming across the Chobe (Impalila)
Best guide: Ongava (Teacher)
Most memorable moment: Hot air ballooning over the dunes (Little Kulala)
Best lodge overall: Impalila

These are just our own silly ratings based on no particular criteria, but we had fun compiling them!

Next: Okonjima

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    Welcome home and CONGRATULATIONS!

    Sooo delighted your trip was wonderful and you're absolutely welcome for any information I may have provided that has been of help to you. I have been really looking forward to your report and can't wait to read more.

    No time to rest - we want to know more!

    And will there be photos?

    :D :D :D :D :D :D :D :D

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    Thanks Kavey :)

    There will be photos soon I hope - am still sorting and editing but I'll try and upload the best ones to a photosharing site. We got some amazing shots!!

    Anyway, on with the report. I'm not sparing many details so those with a shorter attention span may nod off...

    Days 1 - 3: Windhoek International - Okonjima Bush Camp

    We arrived at Windhoek International around midday, picked up our hired Toyota Corolla and sat phone and were soon on our way. I'd bought the Globetrotter Namibia travel pack (small guide and large road map) which was quite good - the road map was more than sufficient for our navigational requirements and it had a good sized map of Windhoek on the back.

    Our first reaction was how calm and relaxed the country seemed. Our previous Africa experiences were in South Africa and Morocco, where the pace of life was much more hectic. Within 5 minutes of leaving the airport we were pointing excitedly at the warthogs and baboons running around on the roadside. This was Africa indeed!!

    The drive to Okonjima took 3 hours in total, on decent tarred roads, passing very little traffic in either direction. As we drove along the last few kilometres, on a gravel road leading to the lodge, we saw kudu, sprinkbok and oryx. A red and white road warning sign with the silhouette of a big cat in the middle hinted that we were almost at Okonjima, home of the Africat foundation.

    We arrived about 4pm, just too late to take part in the bush camp's afternoon activity (they advise guests to arrive before 3pm if possible) so we were treated to tea and cake in the shady main lodge as we filled in the arrival documents.

    The thatched, open-sided lodge looks out onto a small waterhole, with views of the reserve and blue hills in the distance.

    Our room was a lovely thatched rondavel with canvas sides that were rolled up during the day. It was beautifully decorated and very comfortable. On one side were shrubs and trees and a small pool (birdbath), and there was a pot of bird seed provided in the room for us to share with any feathered friends that popped down for a splash around. I thought this was a lovely touch.

    After drinks around the campfire before 7pm, we sat down for a lovely dinner of fish (me) and beef (DH*) and a fine bottle of Pinotage.

    At 8.30 the guides asked us if we wanted to participate in the nighttime activity, which was a short drive to their nearby hide. We wanted to see as much wildlife as possible on this trip so despite being tired, we jumped at the chance.

    We drive 5 minutes to the hide which was on a rocky outcrop. The guide, Dean, had brought a bucket of kitchen scraps and fruit and proceeded to lay out a picnic for the nocturnal animals. Honey badgers were already loitering in the background waiting to get stuck into the food.

    We watched for about an hour as honey badgers and several porcupines snuffled and ate. I'd never seen a porcupine before and was surprised at how big they were.

    The following morning we were woken at 5.30 for the morning activity. After a hot cup of Rooibos tea and a delicious freshly baked poppyseed muffin, we set out with the guide to visit the Africat foundation and see for ourselves the rehabilitation projects they organised. (see www.africat.org for more details).

    First stop was near Okonjima's main lodge, where a group of lions were
    kept - these big cats were unfortunately too habituated to humans to ever be successfully rehabilitated, so were destined to spend their life on the reserve. Still, they posed beautifully for us in the sunshine, yawning and stretching and looking quite content.

    Next we drove down to another section of the reserve where a young leopard was kept that had been taken in as an orphaned cub. He was so young that he had to be hand reared and was therefore, again, too habituated to humans to be able to survive in the wild (leopards and cheetah still live in many parts of Namibia and are considered pests by many farmers). We watched from a hide as the animal was fed, and again were able to take some incredible close-range photos of this beautiful creature.

    We were then taken to another area where a number of cheetah were kept. The guide had a few meat scraps for them and as soon as our vehicle drove through the gate they were scampering behind it mewing like cats waiting for a bowl of Whiskas!!

    This organised feeding may not seem like "real" wildlife viewing to people used to the safari experience in Africa, but it was fascinating to learn about the animals and understand just how detrimental human contact can be for them as they become too trusting to be able to survive in the wild.

    This was all explained to us during the final part of the morning activity, when we were taken to the Africat office and learned more about the different rehabilitation and education projects that the foundation undertakes.

    We returned to the Bush Camp for a fabulous brunch - every kind of fruit, cold meat, wonderful breads, muffins and cereals, and an outdoor "cooked breakfast" area where the chef stood at a hotplate, cooking any combination of eggs, mushrooms, onions, tomatoes, sausage and bacon to order, including huge "bush omelettes" stuffed with absolutely every ingredient plus cheese.

    After brunch we were free to relax until 3 o'clock so we put down some birdseed and watched as tiny canaries, squawking francolins, crimson-breasted shrike, waxbills and many other birds I couldn't identify, came down to peck around for tidbits.

    That afternoon, after tea and more delicious cakes and pastries (sweet and savoury), we set off for our leopard-tracking activity. There was a 4000 hectare rehabilitation area stocked with game, in which small groups of cheetah were introduced in order that they learn to hunt and fend for themselves. The leopard are there to act as competition for the cheetah to emulate the "real life" situations that these animals would encounter in the wild. The two leopards have radio collars and the guides have a tracking device enabling them to detect whether either of the animals are within range. This was a lot of fun - after much beeping and mixed signals, the guide worked out where the leopard was and within minutes it was slinking down the hillside and past the vehicle, heading off down the sandy track and into the bushes. It was amazing to be so close to this leopard, as they are creatures I had only ever caught glimpses of before.

    Dinner that evening was a gorgeous creamy chicken dish for me, and kudu wrapped in bacon for DH. We decided to go to the night hide again and were rewarded with the spectacle of 9 porcupines and 2 honey badgers snuffling round and enjoying the scraps.

    The following morning we set off to track the 2 cheetah currently in the process of being rehabilitated. Again, they had radio collars so the principle was similar to the previous day's leopard tracking. This time, however, we wouldn't approach them too closely in the vehicle (so that they don't become accustomed) and would also be tracking them on foot. We eventually found one of the males snoozing, almost perfectly camouflaged in the undergrowth, and watched quietly as it stretched and scratched in the early morning light. Our attempts to locate the other cheetah failed however, and the rest of the drive was taken up with bird spotting and the occasional kudu or zebra.

    We returned for another slap-up breakfast and then set off at around 11, heading for the Etosha national park.

    Next: Etosha Park - Halali Camp

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    Hanl,
    I am so jealous of the honeybadger/ porcupine sightings!
    We saw porcupines at Ndumo last year but just two, one each night and they didn't stick around for long.
    Pete saw a single honeybadger at Mombo but I missed that drive as my back and bad hip were particlarly achey that afternoon.
    This night time feeding at the hide sounds wonderful!

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    Great report, and I'm really looking forward to reports from Etosha. I also stayed at Halali (plus Okakuejo and Namutoni) and Ongava when I visited.

    I've been on five safaris, and to date, haven't seen a honeybadger, although I've seen porcupine in Sabi Sands and in South Luangwa.

    Michael

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    Days 3-5: Etosha Park - Halali Camp

    I was a little concerned about the next stage in our trip as I hadn't realised until the last minute that the travel agent had booked us into Halali Camp for our 2 nights at Etosha. I just assumed we would stay at Okaukuejo so hadn't even bothered to check! I was starting to regret this as everybody we'd met told us how great the wildlife viewing was at Okaukuejo waterhole, and that Halali accommodations weren't wonderful. Still, a couple we'd met at Okonjima assured us that the restaurant and shop at Halali were excellent, and we were heartened by this.

    The drive up to Etosha (Anderssen Gate) took around 2 and a bit hours, on mostly straight roads, with some gorgeous scenery. As before, we passed very few cars in either direction. When we arrived at the gate we filled in the forms and were directed to Okaukuejo Camp where we would need to pay our park entrance fees. This done, we set off along the park's main through road to Halali. We were soon spotting herds of zebra and springbok grazing under the midday sun, and a few imposing birds - which we later learned were kori bustards - strutting through the grass. As we approached a grassy plain we saw an animal slinking towards the road. To our delight it was a stunning lioness, who walked past a group of nervous springbok before lying down in the road a few metres from our car.

    Many zebra and photos later, we arrived at Halali Camp. The 75 km from Okaukuejo had taken us almost two hours. The accommodation seemed OK (we'd booked a "luxury" 4 bed bungalow) - having stayed at camps in South Africa's Kruger Park, this camp seemed fairly similar. The view was nothing special and things were a little shabby, but on the whole we weren't particularly dissatisfied.

    As we'd been told the camp shop was decent and well stocked, we'd decided to self-cater for our 2 days there and so headed to the shop to get some essentials. Surprise, the shelves were almost bare! No bread, few fresh goods and a very limited choice of tinned goods. Pilchards were prevalent. At this point I was annoyed as we'd stopped at a service station with a well-stocked shop on the way to the park and I'd decided against getting any provisions there.

    We decided that we'd have to try the camp restaurant instead as we'd been told it was good... but it wasn't wonderful either. It wasn't too bad, but the food was heavy and the choices (tinned salads, various roast meats, rice/potatoes and carrots) were uninspiring.

    Still, we weren't there for the accommodation or the food, we were there for the wildlife. As if in compensation, while my DH was reading on the patio (I was snoozing indoors), a honey badger appeared from nowhere and started sniffing around his chair. Having heard how vicious they could be (and seen the guides at Okonjima approach them only when armed with an electric baton), he leapt onto the chair and stood there nervously until the creature sloped off. I wish I'd been there with my camera - not so much for the honey badger as to see my husband standing quaking on a chair!!! (Maybe I should have called this report "Of honeybadgers and hot air balloons"!)

    After dinner we made our way to the waterhole, located about 10 minutes walk from the main camp. What a joy to find a herd of around 30 elephants splashing around when we got there. We sat and watched as the animals took it in turns to drink from a particular spot, making a noise like a child slurping a milkshake. Soon we realised that the ellies had learned to drink straight from the spot where the inlet pipe brought cool fresh water to the waterhole.

    After a while we saw two grey shapes approaching the waterhole from the bushes beyond. At first I thought they were elephants but they seemed too small. Then I realised what they were: a black rhino with its baby. They gingerly approached the water but were chased away by the elephants. After a few more attempts to drink, the indignant elephants sent the rhinos packing. A few minutes later a hyena appeared and, again, was chased off by an irate, trumpeting elephant.

    We were more than thrilled with the evening's sightings and certainly no longer regretted being at Halali Camp.

    The next morning we set off early, stopping off to check the activity at the waterhole (just a couple of marabou storks) before heading off for a drive towards the edge of the Etosha pan and the central/northern parts of the park. Soon we were watching a large male lion weaving his way across a grassy plain - not in our direction this time, unfortunately.

    We also spotted many herds of zebra, black-faced impala (indigenous to the area), springbok, kudu, a few lone wildebeest and a family of giraffes (baby giraffe was startled by the car and ran like off a slow-motion rocking horse down the road to mummy). As we approached the pan itself, it was almost like being by the sea, with a "shore" leading to the white, shimmering expanse of the salt pan, dotted here and there with zebra and wildebeest. It looked like the surface of the moon.
    The birdlife was also interesting, and we spotted more kori bustards, a secretary bird, vultures and a pair of ostriches.

    Back at the camp, there was still very little food in the shop so we braved the restaurant, hoping that the lunch menu might be more interesting that the previous evening's dinner. Unfortunately, it wasn't - it was exactly the same! (same salads, same meat selection, same carrots...)
    We made up for lunch by spending the afternoon lounging and reading by the pool which, though cold, was very pleasant.

    Just before dusk we armed ourselves with a couple of cold beers and made our way to the waterhole. This time it was occupied by 2 bull elephants drinking, throwing mud around and occasionally putting on power displays as the larger made sure the smaller one knew his place.


    The following day we checked out and drove a roundabout route towards Okaukuejo camp and the park gate. Here we made a point of stopping off at the different waterholes as I'd just noticed that the park map I'd bought gave excellent descriptions of each one. We found ourselves watching in awe at one waterhole where a huge, seemingly endless procession of zebras wound its way down to drink, their striped rumps lining up on the bank until there were zebra every which way we looked.

    At another waterhole we were mesmerised at the spectacle of hundreds of zebra, oryx, springbok and wildebeest drinking and splashing in the water, while warthogs snuffled around nearby. The photos we took were incredible as animals milled all around our car. The zebra were braying and parrying with each other, and here and there we saw springbok males fighting. I felt like I was in the middle of a wildlife documentary.

    On the way out of the camp I wanted to stop at Okaukuejo to check out the waterhole. It was quite different to the set up at Halali, as it really was in the camp, with many bungalows overlooking it directly. I couldn't quite believe my eyes when I saw the volume of animals drinking and grazing around the waterhole. Almost as far as the eye could see.
    We watched as three grey dots in the distance became elephants, and the smaller animals moved out of the way to let the ellies drink.

    What a spectacle. I never dreamed that the concentration of animals would be so high. It was very different to the experience we'd had at Kruger park, where the animals are numerous but well spread out. The opportunities for watching different species interact were also quite amazing. I'd certainly visit Etosha again, but would allow for longer in the park and would split my time between the different camps.

    On leaving the park, our next stop wasn't too far away, as the entrance to Ongava lodge is literally at the exit to the park.


    Next: Ongava Lodge

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    great post hanl,
    quick question for u. when u travelled in etosha it seems that you drove yourselves the whole time. is that true? and if so did u enjoy driving yourself and was it possible to rent a guide/driver for a day at the camps if you wanted too. namibia is definitely a place near the top of my wish list and any extra info would be much appreciated. thx and i look forward to the rest of your report.

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    Great report Hanl. I was impressed with the abundance of wildlife you were able to witness, especially at the water holes.

    Great luck with the honeybadgers too.

    Looking forward to Ongava.

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    Thanks for all the feedback so far :)
    Bigcountry, we did drive around Etosha ourselves. The gravel roads are a bit rough in parts but that was the only real problem. We bought a map from the camp shop and worked out our routes in advance.
    As for guided game drives, we were hoping the camps might offer them too. However, there wasn't any sign of them -The Cardboard Box website (http://www.namibian.org/travel/namibia/etosha.htm) confirms that no organised game drives are available.

    Of course if you stay somewhere like Ongava then they take guests on guided game drives within the park as well as on their own reserve.

    Will post about Ongava later on today :)

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    Apologies for taking so much time to post. Here is the next instalment...


    Days 5-6: Ongava Lodge

    We drove ten metres out of the Etosha gate and turned right into the gates of Ongava reserve. After filling in a bit of paperwork for the guard at the gate, we set off along a very bumpy road in search of the lodge. This road was by far the worst we'd driven on - even worse than the smallest gravelliest Etosha backroads; I was seriously worried about the suspension and tyres of our rental car, although miraculously we made it to the lodge without any damage.

    For some reason I hadn't really looked at many pictures of Ongava lodge, even when booking, so I wasn't quite sure what to expect when we arrived.
    Suffice to say, I was not disappointed! The lodge is built on a rocky outcrop (lots of stairs) - from the carpark you take a winding path up to the main lodge which has a stunning view over the reserve and the waterhole, which the entire camp overlooks. Kudu and oryx were drinking there when we arrived.

    We were brought glasses of iced tea, filled in the paperwork and listened as the camp's daily schedule was explained to us. Lunch would be at 1, tea and cake followed by game drive at 3, dinner at 8.

    Then we were taken down a series of wooden walkways and stairs to our room.
    Wow. It took our breath away! The room was huge, with a deck at the front overlooking the bush and, just in view, the waterhole.
    The bathroom - with double "his and hers" shower - was enormous, and the WC and outdoor shower were built around living trees. From the outdoor shower we could see zebra and oryx browsing in the bush.

    At this point we began to wish (not for the last time) that we'd booked more than one night at Ongava (originally we'd planned to spend two nights, but flight schedules and logistics had meant we'd had to lose a night).

    After a great buffet lunch and a nap, we managed to find room for tea and cake as we waited expectantly for our afternoon game drive. One thing we'd heard about Ongava was that the game drives were really worthwhile! Just my cup of tea.

    We set off with our guide, Teacher. Very knowledgeable about the smaller things - botany, birds, bushcraft - as well as the larger creatures, he was absolutely great. He had that mixture of knowledge, patience and extremely sharp eyesight that makes for an excellent guide.

    Our evening game drive would be on Ongava's 40,000 hectare reserve. Soon after setting out we spotted kudu, springbok, waterbuck and bushbuck, and before long we were looking out across a grassy plain where a baby rhino was trying (and eventually succeeding) to stop its mother from grazing so that it could suckle. We watched in delight as the baby somehow manoeuvred its horn under its mother's belly so that it could drink. It looked uncomfortable and mummy rhino, after a couple of minutes, managed to shake off baby and get back to the serious business of grazing.

    Around another corner, silhouetted against the dusty evening light, we spied another two white rhino stomping determinedly across the grass towards us, as zebra and wildebeest milled in the background.

    The rhino were on their way to drink, our guide decided, and we headed off to the nearby waterhole to wait for them. He stopped the vehicle on a high bank overlooking the waterhole, and we waited expectantly for the rhino. However, Teacher had spotted something else in the bushes.
    "Can you see the lion?" he asked. It took my untrained eyes 5 minutes to see what he had spotted in 5 seconds, but eventually I made out two lionesses lying in the shade of the trees near the water's edge.

    As the rhino approached, they became skittish and kept backing off. We drove round through the undergrowth to the other side of the waterhole, hoping to get a better view, but the rhino were so nervous, they were keeping their distance.

    Eventually, just as we drove back to our original position, we saw the lions jump up, and the rhino were right behind them. Through the trees we could just see the lions and rhino facing off, mock charging each other (of course, it was at precisely this moment that I couldn't get my camera to work).

    After much aggressive posturing and scuffling, the lions moved towards the water's edge, drank and then settled a little further away. The rhinos nervously came down to drink as the lions watched them lazily from the opposite side of the water.

    We sat watching this drama unfold for at least half an hour, mouths open. I'd hoped to see a lion or two on this trip but hadn't imagined we see rhino and lion coming head to head with each other on the water's edge, as a thousand birds flew in swarms to bathe in the water and the African sun set in a riot of orange and pink.

    A little while later, as we sipped our sundowners on the edge of a grassy plain, the tone was hushed as we thought about the spectacle we'd just witnessed. Another honeymoon couple was in the vehicle with us, and we agreed that we couldn't have chosen a better place. This was the stuff of memories.


    Dinner at Ongava was a communal affair around a long table. It was enjoyable as we had the chance to chat to some very interesting people, but I was slightly disappointed at the quality of the food, which didn't seem quite in keeping with the standard of the accommodation. It wasn't bad food - far from it - but the slightly informal buffet of meats, vegetables and salads was lacking in the style and attention to detail that we found at the other lodges.

    Still, the wine flowed and stories were shared, and we stayed up far later than we had anywhere else (beyond ten o'clock - :o )

    Although I was exhausted, sleep that night proved hard to come by. The bed was perfectly comfortable, but the din being made by some animal outside my window was soon beyond a joke.

    I considered going out onto the deck to find out what was making the growling-coughing-barking noise but thought better of it, as there were no barriers between bush and camp here. Every twenty minutes the noises would start again, giving me goosebumps every time. It sounded like the animal was right outside our room.

    (It was.)

    After a big breakfast early the next morning I decided to ask our guide, Teacher, what might have been making such a racket.
    "What room are you in?"
    I told him.
    "Lions", he replied calmly. And he went on to explain that a pride of lions had been hanging around near that room for some time and that they often visited the waterhole in the daytime. I was very glad that I hadn't decided to go out onto that deck!

    As we were leaving that morning, we didn't have the opportunity to go on a game drive into Etosha park itself, and again I regretted not having booked an extra night there. The quality of the game viewing was just excellent and the drives were longer than at any other lodge I've visited in Namibia or SA.

    We went out again with Teacher for a drive on the Ongava reserve. The animals were few and far between that morning, and despite coming across fresh lion tracks at almost every turn of the road, we couldn't find anything more than the odd kudu or springbok. Eventually, after a couple of hours we crossed over to another section of the reserve and soon spotted giraffe and white rhino - our 6th in less than 24 hours!

    We were reluctant to leave Ongava as it was such a beautiful place, but we knew that we had to be back in Windhoek before 6 that evening, to drop off our rental car.

    We had had such a fabulous time at Etosha, we knew that next time we'd have to spend at least 5 days there - 3 days was only enough to give us a taster.

    Next: Olive Grove Guest house, Impalila Island Lodge (Caprivi) and the Victoria Falls

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    You have such a great trip report! I love the stories of what you were lucky enough to see. All the rhino and zebra and having lions outside your tent - wonderful! I also wish you had a picture of your husband standing on the chair - that would be great fun.

    Keep it going because I'm really enjoying your trip!

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    Thanks Kavey and Sundowner - I'm really enjoying reliving this trip as I write this report!!


    Days 6-11: Olive Grove Guest house (Windhoek), Impalila Island Lodge (Caprivi) and Victoria Falls

    Our drive back to Windhoek was mostly smooth - took 4 and a half hours - and uneventful, except for when my French husband forgot which side of the road he was supposed to be driving on! Fortunately there were no other cars on the road at that point.

    It took us a while to find Olive Grove guest house, as it's tucked away on a winding road. We loved this place - it was a perfect stop-off point to relax and chill out.

    There was a definite Moroccan influence to the decor (in fact, the layout was rather similar to a Moroccan riadh), with the house's semi-open dining area, open plan lounge and relaxed vibe.

    Our room was large, with a door opening out onto a shared patio area at the back. Down a flight of stairs from the patio was the guest house's jacuzzi, which looked inviting (although we didn't find the time to test it out).

    The room also had the most enormous bath I think I've ever seen - more the size of a plunge pool than a bath. The bath/shower and washbasins were part of the room rather than in a separate bathroom, and the toilet was separated only by a curtain, which might be a problem for some people.

    We decided to stay and have dinner at the guesthouse rather than go out to eat, as we had another early start the next day.

    Dinner was served in the semi-open patio area at the front of the guest house, which had been closed off with canvas curtains and was heated with outdoor gas heaters.

    There was a nice menu with a starter (home made spinach flan), garden salad, choice of mains (chicken or beef I think) and desert, all for around 125 N$. We enjoyed a great bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon from the wine list. A very enjoyable dinner!

    THe next morning we were up at 5.30 as we were to be picked up at 6 to go to Eros airport for our flight to Katima Mulilo. The security guard brought us a huge tray of breakfast goodies as we were too early for the proper breakfast buffet, but we'd hardly had time to butter a roll before our taxi arrived.

    When we arrived at the tiny Eros airport, we discovered that we were the only 2 people on the Air Namibia flight to Katima that morning. I was feeling a little nervous about flying on a small plane, but then I looked out of the window and saw a decent, not too small, new-looking Air Namibia plane on the tarmac and felt better. There were two flights leaving at 7 am, however, and once they'd called the first flight, the nice new plane moved out of the way... and I saw another teeny, rather scruffy plane behind it. Our plane, of course.

    In the event, the flight was fine - not too bumpy and fairly smooth taking off and landing. It took about 2 and a quarter hours to get to Katima Mulilo's tiny airport which is on the military base at Mpacha. A little red van sped up to collect our luggage and deliver it out the front of the "terminal", and we were met by the driver who was to take us to Impalila Island Lodge.

    I hadn't looked properly at a map of the area; if I had, i would have realised that the island would have to be reached by boat (sounds logical really!) and we'd have to go via Botswana, through the Chobe national park, to get there.

    The island is located right at the tip of Namibia, at the meeting point of the Chobe and Zambezi rivers.The drive from the airport took about 1 and a half hours, including border crossings. We finally arrived at Kasane, completed more immigration paperwork, and were met by a guide from Impalila. He loaded our bags onto a speedboat and we set off for the lodge. Talk about arriving in style! This sure beat bumpy gravel roads in a sedan car.

    After stopping at the Namibian immigration post on Impalila island (a small building located five minutes from the shore, up a bumpy track), we sped off to the lodge - the journey from Kasane took about 30 minutes in all.

    Impalila Island Lodge is built overlooking a side channel of the Zambezi, around 3 ancient baobab trees that apparently once served as a camping spot for David Livingstone on his epic journey towards Victoria Falls. The lodge blends beautifully in with its surroundings, with a deck, lounge/bar area, pool and sundeck. Vervet monkeys scampered through the trees, monitor lizards waddled through the reeds by the river, crocs occasionally raised a lazy eye from the water and birds were everywhere. We could hear the honking of hippos not far away.

    We were shown to our room - a beautiful wooden chalet overlooking the rapids and, after freshening up,we were shown to a table by the swimming pool where we had a delicious lunch of chicken kebabs, salad and sticky pecan pie, washed down with a glass of white wine.

    Heaven!

    That afternoon, around 4 o'clock, we set off for our game cruise on the Chobe river. It's a whole new experience, viewing game by boat, as the guides can cut the engine and glide silently towards the animals without frightening them off.

    I'd heard that this part of the Chobe national park could get pretty busy, and as we travelled up the river we saw many large lodges perched up on the banks. Some of them were huge, and all also offered game cruises. However, although we did see some other boats, the concentration of people was still less than you would probably see on land in most national parks.

    We'd been told that there were 46,000 elephants in the Chobe National Park, and I soon began to realise this was no exaggeration. We saw so many elephants, in all manner of situations: lone bulls, breeding herds, bachelor herds, tiny babies...
    Our first sighting was of a group of ellies grazing on a grassy island in the middle of the river. They would uproot the grass, shake it to get rid of any unwanted bugs or dirt, and then carefully wipe it clean with their trunks before eating it.

    Further along the river we saw more elephants on the riverbank, a couple of red lechwe bounding through the reeds, kudu, springbok, a colony of baboons, crocs, hippos, buffalo, fish eagles, Egyptian geese, darters, bee eaters, kingfishers... and then in a quiet area of the river, we stopped the boat a hundred yards from where another herd of elephants was drinking, their forms silhouetted against the setting sun.

    As we turned to return to the lodge, one of the other guests told me that if I had sunglasses, I should put them on. I thought that was odd as it was almost dark, but I went along with it anyway. As the boat sped up I realised why sunglasses were essential - to keep the bugs out of your eyes! Millions of tiny insects were flying around over the river and splatting into our faces like on the windscreens of cars. Fortunately the sunglasses and the blankets provided on the boat gave us adequate protection.

    I can't remember what we had for dinner that night, although I know it was delicious. We were so tired, we could barely make it through desert and we were glad to sink into bed and let ourselves be lulled to sleep by the sound of the rapids (and the occasional hippo honk).

    The next morning, after a fine breakfast, we set off with two of the guides on a nature walk across the island. One of the things that most impressed me about this lodge was the way they worked with the local community - a large number of the guides were born and brought up on the island (which is 12 km long and home to approx 1200 people). We also appreciated the number of guides, which meant that the lodge could offer a range of activities for all guests every day.

    The walk took us from one side of the island - predominantly rocky ground formed by volcanic activity - to an enormous, 2000-year old baobab on the other, sandy side. As we walked, the guides identified trees and plants, birds, as well as the various facilities (school, health centre, etc.) and villages. However, it was the baobab that was the highlight. We were told we could climb up it to get a view of four countries - Namibia, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe - but when I saw the height of the metal pegs that I'd have to climb up, I chickened out.

    That afternoon, after another delicious lunch of roasted vegetable salad, we decided to go on another game cruise. This time we got close to a small island where cormorants and darters were nesting, and a large crocodile sat on a rock with his mouth open showing a collection of very sharp teeth.

    We got much closer to a couple of pods of hippos than we had the previous day. Perhaps even a little too close for comfort, in my book, as a couple of the animals seemed less than pleased to see us.

    As we came out of a side channel and rounded a reed bed we saw something I'd heard of but never thought I'd actually see: a herd of elephants swimming across the river, their trunks sticking out of the water like snorkels, and the little babies being nudged along by their mothers. We watched in awe as they clambered out of the water and onto the grassy bank.
    Some distance away we could see a commotion on the river bank - three elephants were running around rather frantically; further down the bank we could make out the shape of a dead elephant lying on its side by the water's edge. We didn't approach it but the image stays in my mind. You hear that elephants mourn their dead and somehow I could believe that.

    That evening, when we returned to the camp, we were touched to discover that our room had been filled with candles, a bottle of champagne was on ice alongside a plate of hors d'oeuvres, and a table for two had been set up on our deck. How romantic! We sat and sipped champagne and listened to the birds and hippos and toasted Africa.

    When we booked our trip, we decided we'd like to take a day trip to VIctoria Falls, which were only 70 km from Impalila Island, and the lodge had organised this for us the following day (outsourced to another tour company). We went through Namibian and Botswanan immigration, were picked up at Kasane, drove to the Zimbabwean border with one guide, passed through Zimbabwean immigration (being British, I got stung 55 euros for my visa while my French husband only had to pay 25) where we were picked up by another tour guide, and driven to the falls.

    Although we'd thought (and the lodge had thought) we were booking a full day trip, it was all rather disorganised as the guide didn't seem to know what to do with us! He dropped us off at the car park by the entrance to the Vic falls park, where we were met by yet another guide.

    We decided against renting ponchos (out of vanity alone, I admit!) and opted for a large golf umbrella instead. We were very glad of it, especially when we saw other visitors looking decidedly soggy in their ponchos.

    The guide took us through the park, stopping off at the various view points and telling us some of the history of Victoria Falls. The waterfalls were absolutely beautiful but I was surprised at how quiet the park was. Surely this used to be one of Africa's major tourist
    attractions? It was nice for us that we had the views to ourselves, but it felt sad that tourism to the Zimbabwean side of the falls had almost come to a standstill.

    After we'd walked through the park and watched some mad bungee jumpers flinging themselves off the bridge over the Zambezi (the rope looked pretty frayed from where we were standing!), we made our way back to the entrance. The guide suggested we stop off at the Victoria Falls Hotel to see the gardens, and then eat lunch at the Kingdom hotel (he assured us that this was the best place for lunch).

    The Vic Falls hotel was stunning - a real colonial heirloom with its lush, manicured gardens, portraits of various British royals, cool interiors and tuxedoed waiters. We made our way to the garden patio and were surprised to realise we were the only people there. Several waiters descended on us with menus and cocktail lists. We ordered fruit juices and admired the gardens and the view of the Zambezi and the white "smoke that thunders" of the falls in the distance. I couldn't quite understand how this hotel could even stay in business, given the size of the place and the scarce clientèle. It felt like they were hanging on by the skin of their teeth, and somehow there was an air of melancholy about it all. It would be a shame if such a beautiful place were forced to close its doors.

    After our drink and a stroll in the gardens (where monkeys kindly posed for photos), we walked up to the Kingdom hotel. What a contrast - this place seemed like the last word in kitsch, built like some mock African temple with pillars and spears and masks and goodness knows what else.

    Inside was the most enormous casino with row upon row of blinking slot machines... and not a soul in sight. Around the casino was an arcade of chain restaurants - steak houses and the like, all empty. We eventually sat down in the one place with customers (2 of them), a pizza place. It all felt extremely surreal, to be eating American-style pizza in a casino in a mock African fortress in Zimbabwe.

    The pizza wasn't bad but I began to regret not staying for lunch at the Vic falls hotel, as this was all a bit too tacky for my liking.

    However, when we came to pay, we discovered that none of our credit cards would work as the machine wasn't working. My husband set off to the bureau de change booth to change some pound notes into ZImbabwe dollars, but the clerk wouldn't accept them as they were Scottish pound notes and therefore didn't have the queen's picture on them!! Eventually after half an hour we managed to pay for our pizzas in euros, and feeling grumpy we were met by our guide who would drive us back to the border.

    As we sat in the car reflecting on our day, we realised just how great the downturn in tourism has been on this side of the VIc falls in recent times. Our guide book, dated 2003, still describes the town of Vic Falls as a busy, touristy place full of hawkers and touts. It gives the exchange rate as 56 Zimbabwean dollars to the US dollar. The exchange rate when we were there? 9200 Zimbabwe dollars to 1 US dollar.

    In the end I didn't regret going to the Zimbabwean side, or eating at the tacky Kingdom Hotel as it opened my eyes a little to the sad state of affairs there. People seemed to be holding on, just, hoping that things would pick up again soon.

    On our return to the lodge, we spent the afternoon chilling out and reading, and that evening enjoyed a great dinner of freshly caught bream at a communal table shared with the lodge's other guests.

    The lodge is particularly well known for its excellent tiger fishing - and while this wasn't a draw for us, it meant that many of the other guests were fishing enthusiasts. After listening to their tales, my husband decided he'd like to try his hand at tiger fishing the next day (the lodge complies with a strict catch-and-release principle).

    So the next morning we were up early again, as a speedboat was loaded up with baitfish, rods and tackle. I had no desire to fish so took a book , binoculars and suncream, and sat enjoying the peaceful surroundings while DH struggled to get to grips with the basics.

    Thankfully, the guide knew his stuff and hubby eventually managed to land 2 tiger fish before they were released back into the water. It was a lovely, relaxing way to spend a morning.

    That afternoon we opted to take a short, 1 hour sundowner cruise on the river. The guide pointed out birdlife and we floated slowly along, stopping on a sandbank just yards from Zambia for our gin and tonics. Unfortunately, the outboard motor conked out at that point and the guide had to radio back to the lodge for another boat to come and tow us back!!

    Dinner that evening was again eaten round the communal table - a chicken curry with rice and lots of house wine.

    The next morning was our last at Impalila, and we decided that our final activity should be another game cruise on the Chobe river.
    More ellies, very close this time (we could have leant over and patted them on the trunk), hippos, a great sighting of buffalo wading through the water, many many birds, red lechwe, crocodiles, marabou storks, eagles, and a stunning herd of kudu that provided me with great photo opportunities when they scattered, running off with their distinctive bounding gait.

    We were picked up from Kasane and drove back through the Chobe park (past yet another herd of elephants) to the Namibian border and Katima Mulilo. Our flight to Windhoek was uneventful and by six o'clock we were back at Olive Grove.

    Next: Olive Grove and Little Kulala




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    Days 11 -14: Olive Grove and Little Kulala

    We were given the same room we'd had before at Olive Grove and were enjoying a cold beer before dinner when we were told that the agent from the Cardboard Box Travel Shop had popped in to see us - she wanted to make sure everything was going well and go over the details of our charter flight to Little Kulala the next day. I was very impressed by this level of service - she really went out of her way to make sure our trip was perfect.

    We had another delicious dinner on the patio and retired early to bed, as we had yet another early start the next day. Luckily it wasn't so early that we couldn't partake of the excellent breakfast at Olive Grove (huge buffet plus wide choice of cooked options - my omelette was delicious).

    We had to leave one of our bags behind as there was a 10 kg limit per person on the flight to Little Kulala, which was operated by charter company Sefofane. Luckily the people at Olive Grove were happy to store our bags and would ensure that they were picked up and taken to Windhoek International airport for our return flight two days later.

    The pilot was waiting at Eros airport and by 7.45 we had folded ourselves into the 6-seater aircraft. My husband was thrilled to be allowed to sit in the front next to the pilot, and we all had headphones so we could listen in to the radio conversations and hear the pilot talking to us. I really enjoyed the flight as we had the most wonderful views of the Naukluft mountains and the desert.

    We were picked up at the airstrip by the camp's assistant manager, Jonathan, and driven across the gravel plain to Little Kulala, which of course was a huge contrast from the lush green vegetation of Impalila Island. We spotted a lone oryx and Jonathan explained to us just how well adapted these animals are to desert life, as they have special chambers in their skulls that allow their brains to stay cool, even if their overall body heat reaches 41 C, and their black and white markings help to reflect/absorb heat where needed.

    At the camp, built alongside a (usually) dry riverbed, with views of the red sand dunes and rocky mountains, we were greeted with glasses of grape juice and "briefed" on the daily schedule. We also learned that the main camp had burned down completely the previous October (caused by a smouldering cigarette) and they had had to rebuild it from scratch. They'd done a good job, as it was spacious and cool.

    We were taken down a sandy path to our room. It being winter, I had assumed that bugs and creepy crawlies wouldn't be too visible... But On the way to the room I spotted a very large insect crawling in the sand... and then another... and another... When I started seeing them everywhere I had to ask what they were. Corn crickets - with a body around an inch and a half long and great big long legs - they looked almost unreal, like some kind of clockwork metal toy. Fortunately all they did was crawl around (slowly - no sudden jumping or flying thank goodness) and chirp loudly. There's a picture here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/wbordes/19177736/in/set-461118/

    The room itself was lovely with a deck and small plunge pool at the front, large bathroom and outdoor shower, and stairs leading up to the flat roof. The view of the mountains and dunes was stunning.

    We had lunch (pasta and salad) and then after a brief "dip" in the plunge pool (it was freezing) we reconvened at 3 for tea and cake, before setting off on our nature drive. The drive took us over the plain and into the rocky hills that would blend into the dunes which arched round us from north to west. We walked up to a spot with fabulous views of the dunes and drank our sundowners as the sand and rocks gradually changed colour.

    When we returned to the camp we were greeted with a glass of sherry, and we just had time to freshen up before it was dinner time. We had onion soup, beef (DH) and fish (me), followed by a very sweet and sticky pudding that I couldn't finish.

    After dinner we'd decided to take the half bottle of champagne that the management had put in our room (honeymoon treat) and lie out on the bed rolls that had been placed on our roof. We lay and looked up at the Milky Way and the incredible array of stars, but decided against sleeping up there all night, as neither of us was completely comfortable with the idea of a corn cricket crawling onto us as we slept.

    The next morning we got up at the crack of dawn and, after a cup of tea and a croissant, were on our way across the gravel plain for our hot air balloon ride. This was one of the big splurges of our trip and I was very excited about it!

    I certainly wasn't disappointed, as it turned out to be one of the highlights of our honeymoon. Just before sunrise, the balloon rose up into the air and we floated, watching in awe as the dunes turned from dusky pink and purple to rose, fuschia, red and orange. The pilot of the balloon, Eric (a slightly crazy Namibian of Belgian extraction), brought the balloon right down into the dunes so that we could almost reach out and touch the sand.

    The views and photo opportunities were quite incredible. Eventually it became clear that the wind wasn't going to do us any favours and blow us back out of the dunes, so Eric radio'ed his team, and in what seemed like no time they appeared, running over the dunes at breakneck speed. With the balloon floating about 2m above the ground, they grabbed hold of straps underneath the basket and walked us back across the dunes and out onto the plain, where their vehicles were waiting.
    They'd also set up a table with a fabulous array of breakfast goodies and we sat and enjoyed champagne and pancakes with the dunes all around us.


    That afternoon, after lunch, we set off with our guide, Samuel, to drive to the dunes at Sossusvlei, around 60 km away. The drive was pretty bumpy - although there was a tarred road across the park, it was in a terrible state so we alternated safe stretches of road with potholes and occasionally left the road altogether to drive on the gravel alongside it. After about an hour, we reached the 4x4-only track to Deadvlei and Sossusvlei. Our guide asked us if we wanted to climb up one of the dunes. Thinking that it didn't look too steep, we set off barefoot. Of course by the time we'd got about half way up I was absolutely exhausted and my legs were killing me. I managed to trudge up a little further but eventually had to give up. We still had the fun of running down the dune however, which felt like running in slow motion.

    We then walked down to Deadvlei, a flat dry bed punctuated by scattered skeleton trees, all silhouetted against the orange sand. Many of those postcard pictures you see of the Namib desert are taken here.

    By the time we'd got back to the car it was getting late in the afternoon. We drove about 20k back to Dune 45 (a popular photo spot - all the dunes in this part of the park are numbered) where we stopped for sundowners and watched the desert turn back from red to purple and grey-brown in the evening light.

    After a great dinner (kudu for DH and chicken for me) we retired to our rooftop for more stargazing and contemplating life, the universe and everything.
    We both agreed that we couldn't have chosen a better country for our honeymoon as we had so many incredible memories and experiences.

    The next morning we took our time over breakfast and waited to be driven back to the airstrip for our flight to Windhoek. As our flight to Jo'Burg was leaving at 2 pm, we'd asked the travel agent to ensure that the charter flight back to WIndhoek would get us to the airport in plenty of time. We were assured by the agent and the charter company that we'd land at Windhoek international by 12.30 at the latest. I felt this was cutting it a bit fine as we also had to find the driver with our other bag and return our satellite phone to Europcar.
    We then discovered that the charter flight time had been put back half an hour, and when we arrived at the airstrip we learned that we'd have to wait for another passenger to arrive - who turned out to be a rather stroppy older lady who insisted on her bags being stored on the back seat of the plane and then couldn't possibly sit in the back seat next to them, so that my hubby and I couldn't sit together. We took off 20 minutes late, by which point i was getting very stressed about missing our next flight. My nerves were not calmed by the turbulent flight and the fact that a trainee pilot was flying the plane most of the time!

    When we got to Windhoek International there was no sign of our other bag, and we were informed that check-in would shortly be closing. Eventually we located our bag behind the (unmanned) airport information desk, grabbed it and checked in, just in the nick of time.
    Not the most perfect end to our holiday... but this was the only slightly negative thing that befell us so we can't really complain.

    All in all, we had a wonderful time. And we're already wondering when we'll be able to go back to fit in all the parts of the country we didn't manage to see this time!

    The End

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    The balloon rides sounds so magical - was it just the two of you (and the pilot) aboard? How marvellous!

    Glad you loved Namibia as much as we do and that it made for such a wonderful honeymoon.

    You'll have to follow our example and renew your wedding vows there for an upcoming wedding anniversary...

    :D

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    :) Good idea!

    The hot air balloon trip wasn't just us - there were three other couples, which made nine of us including the pilot. Each couple had their own "compartment" in the basket though.

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    Wonderful trip reporting especially your time in Etosha. We have our next trip planned for "06 and also plan to do a driving trip throughout Namibia along with some fly in camps. Our first trip a few years ago involved just the Sossusvlei area ( Sossusvlei Mtn. Camp ) in Namibia with the rest spent in Botswana and Cape Town.

    Our itinerary for this next trip is as follows:
    Self drive portion
    Day 1 - Windhoek - Heinitzburg Hotel
    Day 2,3 - Mushara Lodge - Etosha
    Day 4,5,6 - Ongava Lodge - Etosha
    Day 7,8,9 - Damaraland - Mowani Mtn. Lodge
    Day 10 - Cape Cross - Cape Cross Lodge
    Day 11,12 - Swapokmund - Hansa Hotel
    Day 13.14,15 - Sossusvlei - Sossusvlei Mtn. Lodge
    Day 16 - return to WIndhoek - overnight

    Fly in Portion
    Day 17,18,19 - fly to Skeleton Coast - Skeleton Coast Camp
    Day 20.21.22 - Fly to the far north - Serra Cafema Camp
    Day 23 - fly back to Windhoek for overnight
    Day 24 - head for home

    On the last trip to Sossusvlei my husband went on the hot air balloon ride but I was hesitant as I thought it might be a bit of a rough ride. After viewing his video I realized I missed out on a wonderful experience and it was very smooth traveling. Next year I hope to do this outing.

    Thank you again for your great report.

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    Wow, your itinerary looks great DJE! Quite a few people told us that the Serra Cafema camp is one of the most amazing in the country so it sounds like you're in for a treat. And you *must* do the hot air balloon ride - it's as smooth as anything when you're up there as you travel at the speed of the wind so you hardly even feel a breeze on your face.
    :)

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    Oh DJE I'm so jealous!
    We wanted to include fly-ins to skeleton coast too, especially Serra Cafema, but we just couldn't afford to add it to the already outrageous price for the 9 weeks we had already planned...
    We left it for another time but now I'm longing for that time to be NOW NOW NOW!

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    Yes I'm really looking forward to the remote fly in camps and the opportunity to have interaction with the local Himba people as well as the nature and geographical aspects of these locations.

    hanl, I will definitely look into the hot air balloon ride.

    Kavey, I completely understand about the expense of a trip like your 9 week adventure and it must have been fantastic. There are just so many wonderful places to visit and only so much time and $$ for each trip.

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    DJE It's so hard planning the perfect trip - even though I rationally accept the need to limit my budget to a certain amount emotionally it's another thing - I just loooong to go to every place I dream about!

    But the 9 week trip was really magical (even though I never did finish the trip report here) and we do feel we chose well...

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