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Trip Report - Namibia, Mozambique, Cape Town

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I've been back a little over a month from a belated honeymoon so this report is long overdue. It will probably be more concise than originally planned or I will never get it on here.

Trip was Nov. 2nd to Nov. 22nd

Air travel was long -- Denver-Atlanta-CapeTown-Joburg-Windhoek About 31 hours of flight and layovers. SAA canceled our flight to Windhoek and put us on Air Namibia. Somehow our bags didn't get switched despite a couple hours of layover. One bag arrived the next morning our other took 5 days to find us.

Windhoek -- one night at Hilltop House (thanks Kavey for great recommendation). We were exhausted and this was a comfortable and well appointed place to stay. We did go to the close by famous Joe's Beer House. I had an excellent Oryx tenderloin and discovered that Windhoek Lager was a pretty good brew. Good night of sleep was essential. We were self driving Namibia so a car was delivered in the morning. I went cheap on this as I was told we would make it with a Mazda 323. Very low clearance and no frills. We had a flat on the first day but no worries other than that. Quite a few rocks did thunk the bottom but it held up. I drive off road quite a bit for my work and was glad I have some experience as this car could have easily become stuck in the sand along the Skeleton Coast road. The car turned out to be a great conversation piece as most people could not believe we were getting around in it.

Sossousvlei Wilderness Camp was our first stop for 2 nights. Lodging here was beautiful. Private little plunge pools were awesome to escape the heat. Sweeping views of the vast desert plain with occasional springbok or oryx. Wonderful main lodge with two tiers of decks and view of lit waterhole below. There was also a special star gazing platform built on a hill above the camp. All tip top. Staff was wonderful -- especially Ben and Lister. Our guide was Steve, a Himba tribe member who was a nice a person as you could meet. Fun to be around and very knowledgeable. Wildlife in this area is sparse and not very diverse, however, desert adaptations make the wildlife very interesting. Scenery is exceptional -- particularly the dunes.

Highlights: 1) hiking up Big Daddy, one of the highest dunes and then running down the steep side. It was a lot of work trudging up but running down at a steep incline (70%?) was one of the funnest and most amazing physical feeling I have ever had. Then at the bottom we were in a vast dry pan surrounded by dunes. Gorgeous, stark landscape that was incredible as it was our guide Steve, us, and one other man and no one else in the world.

2) Under the stars Braais on the lower deck. Incredible food including oryx steaks that were delicious.

3) A unique sighting of two Cape foxes during daylight hours.

4) Cooling off in the plunge pool under the stars

Next we drove to Swakopmund. Along the way we stopped at Solotaire - a small lodging area and gas station. A chalk board gives the daily world news and they are famous for their "crumble" - a apple crisp kind of thing that was pretty good. On most of the drives we saw few to no other cars, a common site in this area though was the Kalhari ferrari -- two wheel carts pulled by donkeys.

In Swakopmund we stayed at the Sea Breeze Guest House. It came highly recommended by the Namibian Card Shop but we did not find it to be anything special. We arrived on a Sat. afternoon and apparently most shops are closed by noon until Monday. Another interesting thing is the street names are changing frequently as German names are being replaced by African ones. We had met two great couples while at Sossousvlei who were already in Swakopmund so we were able to meet up with them for a great dinner at the Tug -- right on the water. Great seafood.

Next day we had a sizeable drive to Damarland Camp. We drove the Skeleton Coast to get there so we got a little flavor for that area. We stopped at Cape Cross and saw thousands of Cape fur seals. It was early in calving season and there were some very new born pups, including one just minutes old. Hard to watch as the pups are very vulnerable and some mothers are excellent while others toss around their babies who can't figure out how to nurse. It is a wildlife spectacle that is worth stopping for. The coast is rugged, desolate and beautiful.

Upon arrival at Damaraland Camps parking area we were greeted by our guide Rosie -- the first woman guide in Namibia, and an excellent one at that. She started as a house keeper and worked her way into guiding. D-Camp is the most rustic and least luxurious of any of the Wilderness Safari Camps that I have ever stayed at in Namibia or Botswana. It consists of basic tents with twin beds and a small amount of luggage room. There in en-suite bath and shower that is solar powered for plenty of hot water. Despite the lower lux factor D-Camp is just unique and special. Every employee is a Damara person -- it was our first black camp manager ever. Lena runs a fun and social camp. With smaller tents that are pretty close together people hang out at the bar and common area. Food was solid but not spectacular, however, dinner time was a real production with the menu announced in both english and click language. We had great discussions about life in Namibia, including politics and education. A quick sidebar here - in rural areas like these the only way to send your children to school is for them to board. The local boarding school houses about 200 children in one room. The ladies here work hard to send their kids to school in Swakopmund or Windhoek. This costs about $500 USD per year for tuition. To stay a part of this community we have arranged to sponsor a child for school. I would encourage all of those who love Africa to think about these things -- for the cost of one day of your trip a child can have a year of good education provided.

Wildlife here is concentrated in the Huab river bed which is dry most of the year. The big attraction is desert adapted elephants. They are slightly smaller than other eles and their behavior has really adapted to their environment. They take small twigs off the trees rather than ripping branches or pulling trees out of the ground. It is fairly easy to track and locate the elephants in the river bed and they find them close to 90% of the time. We had great, close up viewing of a family group of 8 known as the Group of 6 (two are young ones) and a one tusked bull.

In addition to game driving we were able to mountain bike and do a nice hike at D-Camp. The atmosphere of the people is special here and the desert elephants are a must for elephant lovers.

Next we headed to Little Ongava. This was extraordinary luxury. There are only 3 bungalows, each tucked privately in the rocks. It is almost certainly the most luxurious lodging in Namibia and I imagine is similar to the Sabi Sand standard of lodges. There is a living room with stocked complimentary minibar fridge and fire place. A bed room, separate changing area, and an exquisite bathroom with a clawfoot soaking tub. The entire back of the building is all windows. There is a large deck area in the back with a private sala (outdoor bed), shower, and an amazing pool. Pretty good sized pool at that with an infinity effect hanging off the deck overlooking vast mopane woodlands and savanna of the Ongava preserve. There was air conditioning which was great but I did miss the outside sounds and feel quite a bit, although on two of our 3 nights the lions roared loud enough to wake us up over the a/c. The hardest thing was you never wanted to leave this paradise and I actually wanted to schedule time at the lodge.

Our guide was a Brit named Mike. At first I didn't like the idea of having my first non-African guide. I quickly changed on this as I realized he was similar to me -- a naturalist from another land that cared enough about the African wildife that he moved to see it everyday. He was very knowledgeable and his commentary with the accent was great like we were with David Attenborough. In addtion to game drives on the Ongava reserve it was possible to take drives in Etosha National Park. While the wildlife is no where near as prevalent or diverse as Botswana there are great gatherings at waterholes and the interactions are fascinating. We saw lots of elephant, giraffe, kudu, zebra, oryx, and lion. On the Ongava reserve we were able to do night drives and the biggest thrill was tracking white rhino on foot. There is definitely a different feeling to being on the ground as opposed to in the vehicle. A short distance into our walk was the carcass of a young oryx and lots of rhino tracks. Eventually we picked up the scent of rhinos. It is thrilling as the anticipation heightens. We came around some bushes and a small rhino walked out followed by a bigger one. All of a sudden a behemoth walks out with a mouth full of grass. Only about 15 yards away she stares at us and our guide says "take a step back". Then instead of proceeding toward us she steps sideways and Mike says "It's o.k. this is one horn, I know her and she's very relaxed." We got to watch all 3 from a close distance until they disappeared in the bush. An experience that will always be remembered. We loved this camp and were very sad to leave.

We drove to Windhoek and had an evening flight to Joburg where we stayed at the Airport Intercontinental hotel. This was a very nice hotel only steps from the airport. I recommend it highly for anyone who needs a quick overnight.

We had an 8 a.m. to Mozambique. The next post will cover our time there.

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    Onto Mozambique:

    First 3 nights were at Indigo Bay Lodge on Bazaruto Island and next 3 at Benguerra Lodge on Benguerra Island. For starters - it was easy to get to from Joburg. I think it took 2 or 2 1/2 hours to fly to Vilanculos. From there it was less than 1/2 hr to get through customs and board a transfer plane that takes 10 minutes to Bazaruto.

    The islands themselves are breathtaking. Long stretches of fine, white powder sand (not course coral sand). The water was very warm and enjoyable to wade/swim in. Be prepared, there is a large tidal flucuation so sometimes the water is way up the beach and you can wade right in, at other times you have to walk a good way through the shallows to get waist deep -- at this point its nice to stay where there is a pool. The underwater environment is prisitine with very healthy coral and fish populations. We snorkeled a couple of times and it was outstanding, on par with the best we have ever done along with the Surin Islands off of Thailand. Probably a little better than Oahu or off of Belize. We saw sea turtles, an eel, and clown fish in anemones as well as countless other beautiful fish. We did not dive on this trip as we are not certified and would have had to take a resort course but the diving is reported to be exceptional as well with many Manta rays and sharks spotted. I was told by other guests that the diving compared well with the Seychelles.

    The islands have small populations of people and very little lodging so there is a lot of beach space available. On three separate occasions we were dropped off and had private picnics on beautiful beaches and did not see a sole for a couple of hours. Taking a sunset cruise sailing on a traditional dhow was a very nice experience as well.

    Interior of the islands contains fresh water lakes with endemic crocodiles. I saw one although he bolted fast when he saw me. There were also flamingos in the lakes and lots of other interesting birds on the islands.

    Lodging: Indigo Bay. This was a little hotelish for my tastes but could be what some people would prefer. It is nesteled within nicely vegetated grounds with many bungalows (about 50 maybe), some 20 yards or so from the beach. The accomodation itself has a standard hotelish feel to it (3 star type) - especially if coming from high end safari accomodation. It was perfectly comfortable, just no real wow factor -- most of the time you want to be outside enjoying the fabulous sun, water, and beaches. Things that could be a plus or minus - it is air conditioned, has satellite t.v. and phones. Normally in Africa I would prefer to be without all these, however, after 10 days in Namibia where it was really hot it was kind of nice to have A/C and it had been long enough that it was cool to watch a movie or sports in the evening. There was a good sized pool, with a swim up bar. All in all the place felt a lot like a vacation at a Mexican resort in Cozumel except that its all Europeans and S. Africans instead of Americans and it is in a much more pristine environment.

    The exception to this comparison is the food. The food was incredible! Every night there was a spread that rivals any I have ever experienced. Two tables of appetizers, salads, accompaniments. Then a huge braais turning out amazing seafood. All you can eat lobster tails, giant tender prawns, calmari, crab, and fish. They would also throw on fresh chicken and steaks. This seafood was as good as any I have ever had and you ate as much as you please. Breakfeast also had a cook to make egg dishes and waffles to order in addition to the big help yourself spread. I was glad I stayed here just for the food factor.

    Benguerra Lodge had a similar island setting and offered about the same exact activities but the lodging was a comletely different experience. There were only 13 bungalows here and ours (#13) had a great view of the sea and was about 20 steps to the beach. Spaced along the beach for each bungalow is a palapa umbrella cover and two lounge chairs. For two of our nights there was only one other couple and they were diving most of the time so we had the whole place basically to ourselves. There is a small pool right by the beach that is very nice. There is an old boat made into a bar also on the beach that was fun for sundowners. You see a few locals fishing in their boats or carrying goods on their heads to their village up the beach.

    The bungalow itself was very nicely appointed with east African style. It should be noted that the bungalows are open sided, although you can drop blinds -- so you will see geckos and millipedes in addition to moths and other bugs in your room. I had a millipede relocation program every evening where I would transfer them with a piece of paper from the walls to the outside. The mosquito net kept all the bugs and geckos out from our sleeping area and in daytime there were no bugs around. There is plenty of hot water and the ceiling fan was sufficient to keep us cool at night even though it was the start of summer. The main lodge and eating area are similarly open and have east African flavor to them. Basically they have created a safari style lodge on the islands. Personally I really like that feel but I'm sure its not for everyone. Plus, you have to realize Mozambique is a young country at this point and the tourism is developing. They are trying to follow Botswana's model of high end, low volume to protect their environment which I think is awesome -- however, they are still in a growing process. Therefore, accomodation and service is not at a Botswana or Sabi Sand luxury safari standard. At Benguerra it definitely has a rustic safari level of lodging and not an exquisite world class feel. We thought it was quite handsome though and enjoyed the outdoor/beach feel. Food here was plated meals usually with two choices to order from. Again, seafood was the specialty and the food was very good.

    Summary: The beaches, island beauty and underwater envivronment were as good as any we have experienced. As for island paradise with a lack of people this area is exceptional!

    Accomodation is the tricky part. We experienced the standard resort type accomodation and then a safari style but more rustic and open to some outdoor critters which may not work for some. Finally, it is not cheap as each activities and your alcohol all cost additional $ on top of lodging. Bazaruto Island Lodge and the Marlin Lodge would be the other two options in the area -- which may offer something different.

    After the beach we headed to Cape Town to follow in next post.

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    We arrived in Cape Town about 8 pm. We had a ride arranged to the Kensington Place, a small botique hotel with about 8 rooms. Kensington Place is an exceptional property that I highly recommend. Our room was beautifully appointed with a mixture of modern styling and African flavor. Our bathroom had a sunken tub against a window that had a pond with koi in it. We had a nice little private patio and there is a nice pool. The service was all tip top. The location is fantastic as it sits right at the base of Table Mountain in a lovely neighborhood and is only a couple of blocks to walk down to Kloof Street which was buzzing with little restaurants and shops. This area was perfectly safe to walk at night to go eat. As we were late to dinner and had been well removed from anything American for more than two weeks I was pretty excited to walk and get a very good pizza.

    The next morning we were picked up for the standard all day tour of the Cape. Beatiful coastlines and small coastal towns, Cape of Good Hope, penguins, etc. It is a good way to get a feel for the area although I wouldn't call it a highlight of the trip. The best part would be we had an excellent guide and getting to talk to him all day let me learn a lot about the culture and the area. For dinner we had the great pleasure of meeting some folks from France that we had met back at the start of our trip in Namibia. That was a great joy and we had outstanding food and wine at the Five Flies.

    On our last day we did some shopping at the waterfront -- the art shed? being the highlight and the tour of Robben Island. For anyone who doesn't know, just about every island is named Seal Island except for Robben Island but of course in Dutch that is Seal Island. The tour is a definite must do in my opinion. The sea was very choppy and quite a few folks were grabbing barf bags. I don't know if that is typical but it was somewhat frightening and nauseating. Once there we rode one of the old prison buses and had an outstanding guide showing the island followed by entering the prison and having the presentation be taken over by a former political prisoner -- Derrick. It is shocking to see how the prisoners had to live and a real reminder of how young this country really is at this point. The tour concludes with viewing the very small cell that housed Mandela for 18 years with just a can for a loo. A side note: it is amazing that virtually no one tipped either the island tour guide or the former prisoner guide. I found that disappointing.

    Following the tour I ran and decided to buy a 3 foot tall drum and it was off to the airport. No surprise the flights weren't much fun and carrying the drum was a small hassle, although I'm very glad I bought it after passing on carrying one home the first time I came to Africa.

    Thanks to all who posted info that helped in my trip planning! Photos will hopefully be posted sometime soon. Feel free to ask any questions.

    Next up -- I head to Zambia to lead a very special African Wild Dog safari June 29th if a couple people sign up to travel with me.

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    Great report. I had the same reaction, and same guide, the last time I visited Robben, and the guide was surprised when I tipped for excellent and gracious service, but I believe I was one of a handful of guests that tipped.

    Can you explain more about the Zambia trip?

    Thanks, Michael

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    Absolutely wonderful report, thanks so much!

    I am pleased you enjoyed Hilltop - I think they have shown attention to detail in decorating and furnishing their rooms and the staff are lovely. It's a nice little place to stay for an overnight in Windhoek. When you were at Joe's did you pop into the shop/ gallery there and view Joe's photographs of Namibia? Beautiful!

    We too loved Damaraland Camp - it has such a very warm ambience. Glad to hear Lena is still there - I am not sure (as we were there in 2001) but I don't think she had yet been promoted to manager then. Our guide there was Charles, who had grown up in a small village not far from camp and we went there and met his aunt (who brought him up after his mother died quite young) and his son. He had such a pride in the area and in being able to share it with us.

    I was also really interested in your detailed feedback on Sossusvlei Wilderness Lodge and also in Little Ongava, especially in that you include the accommodation, which I like to read about too.

    I have been reading a lot about Mozambique recently and am keen to visit but since we are not into beaches we'll look into safari experiences there when I'm allowed to plan another trip to Africa. 2005 is not an Africa year. :(

    Regarding Robben Island, we also found that issue with tipping very surprising indeed, and after I mentioned it in my trip report I know at least one other Fodorite said they felt the same thing. What shocked me even more than lack of tip was the way in which most people drifted off without even thanking our guide for sharing something very personal with us. He might do it everyday but that makes it no less of an emotional subject and yet people just wondered off without even a good-bye or thanks. Sigh.

    I WISH I could go with you for the wild dog experience - need an assistant? ;) I'm sure it will be a wonderful experience.

    PS So how was the wedding itself? And how did your wife love the honeymoon?

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    Kavey: Wedding was in June and was fabulous and my wife definitely loved the honeymoon! Luckily she is very into travelling and happy to let me plan. We did see Joe's photos in the shop and they were brilliant. Lena is doing a great job as the Camp Manager and has been a pleasure to work with in setting up a school scholarship through the Torra Conservancy.

    Mozambique is working hard to restore their parks and there should be some unique lodging developing in the near future. Wonderful people who have endured the worst hardship hopefully their bright feature is realized. I also hope to experience safari there in the future.

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    Michael: The Zambia safari I have arranged is unique as I have coordinated with wild dog researchers and we will be able to go into the field with them as well as use satellite collar technology to locate them. That should guarantee observations of pups at their dens and hopefully allow us to follow some hunts.
    In Kafue we will be with a researcher from the San Diego zoo and there should be a few packs that contain a collared dog. In South Luangwa we hope to be with a researcher from Australia and have collared dogs but the funding is still being sought. We will be able to assist with collecting valuable data in both parks. I will serve as a biologist expert discussing research, conservation, and comparative behaviors of African wildlife with other species around the world -- basically providing a lot of big picture context. Our local guide will be Derek Solomon, author of 4 Southern Africa bird books and currently collecting a lot of research data on wild dogs in S. Luangwa. Derek is also the only guide who uses sophisticated sound equipment to allow guests to listen to hippo communications underwater as well as other sounds of the bush. I'm very excited as this is the best opportunity possible to observe and learn about wild dogs, in my opinion the most interesting predator as well as experience all the other glories of Zambia's two biggest parks with walks, night drives, boat etc. I'm biased for sure but I think this is an extraordinary opportunity to get beyond just spotting animals and really learn about behaviors and research. It is certainly a one of a kind safari that cannot just be booked with any number of travel agents.

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    Sounds interesting -- any more details, such as dates, itinerary. I am considering visiting Kafue and the plains to the west next year (I have already been to S.Luangwa so would prefer to visit other parks).

    I'll be in Madagascar in May 2005, and am considering another trip to Africa for later in the year (but I'm also considering trip to Ukraine, and am split between visiting what seems to be a very interesting and changing country as I have read in recent news reports, or getting twice to Africa). Frankly, I am leaning towards Ukraine, but there's a small chance that I will make a second visit to Africa in 2005.



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    Kavey: it would certainly be a pleasure to meet you, too bad you won't be making an Africa trip this year.

    Michael: The dates are June 29th - July 8th. This was selected because it should be prime time to view the puppies while still at the den. That may not be as appealing to you if you will have just been in Madagasgar in May -- that should be special. But certainly let me know if you have any questions, feel free to e-mail me direct too. This is a link that gives the exact itinerary.

    I have set the trip up through the North Carolina State Alumni Association where I did my undergrad to help promote it but it is not limited to alumni.

    In Kafue the wild dog research is run by Dr. Anne Carlson from the San Diego Zoo and they headquarter by Lunga River Lodge so I would recommend staying there as they will have up to date knowledge on where the dogs have been sighted.

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    I visited the Ukraine back in 1990 and I remember the trip well. Of course the political system was very different then but I loved the trip.
    I can't help you much on details: I was 18 and the visit was part of a 5 week overland journey with a bus load of other kids of my age - through Western Europe, Eastern Europe to Odessa and back via a different route.
    My memories aren't clear enough to recommend sites or things to do but... what stands out clearly is how much we enjoyed meeting and talking to the local people and finding out about their lives and sharing about our own.
    Of course, part of the reason I look back so fondly was down to that unique kind of bonding teenagers do on trips of that nature but... I do recall finding the Ukraine a fascinating experience.

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    Thanks, Kavey, I have only begun to research Ukraine, and Lonely Planet's first Ukraine edition will not be released until June/July, but I'm thinking of trip to Kiev, Lviv and maybe a few days in Crimea. I'll only be there for a week or so.

    I'm much more excited about trip to Madagascar, but Ukraine is also appealing.

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    I was tempted to include Madagascar in our 2 month trip this year as it's been on my wishlist such a ridiculously long time but it didn't work out to be a good solution so... it's still on the list and very near the top.

    You know we'll be wanting to wring as MUCH information out of you when you get back as we possibly can don't you? :D

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    Thanks for the great report-sounds like a fantastic honeymoon! I liked hearing the details of the accommodations also, especially since we stayed at Wilderness camps in Botswana in Aug. 03 and would like to visit Namibia too. We were lucky enough to see a pack of wild dogs hunting, killing and eating at Duma Tau so your upcoming trip sounds fascinating-just wish I could go! Hope you'll post another report.

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