People do not travel to Namibia early in the year due to hot temperatures, the chance of being caught in a downpour or work commitments. However, as someone who dislikes hordes of tourists, I decided it was time to explore Namibia in February. What a pleasant surprise! Admittedly it was hot, but we were lucky enough to have rain and this cooled things off. A bonus is that not only did we get to see exciting thunderstorms blowing over Etosha Pan but also to see the harsh landscape transform into lush greenery. It may make game-viewing a little harder, but for many animals, the rain signals a renewal of life, with young being born and food being abundant after many lean months. This year was even more poignant due to some good rains bringing relief from the terrible drought Namibia has faced for the last 4-5 years. There is little that makes a Namibian happier than seeing a river run or the first big thunderstorm of the rainy season.
My work as a travel consultant requires me to keep abreast of new lodges in Namibia, therefore our self drive adventures started at a new lodge called Kifaru, close to Outjo. Set on the side of a beautiful koppie it has magnificent views over the surrounding bushveld. The hillside is shaded by mountain seringas and scattered with unusual rock formations. As a small lodge you can immerse yourself in nature and enjoy the tranquil environment. Kifaru is beautifully decorated; our premier room offered views out on to the veld with a large balcony from which to soak in the expansive horizon.
Kifaru interior dining area
An afternoon nature drive gave us a chance to see life springing up after recent rains – impala and flame lilies; mountain zebra with new foals; the fresh scratchings of an aardvark in the soft sand; and lush new growth on all the trees. We then settled down for a mellow sundowner by the side of a pond that attracts an array of birdlife, one shy tortoise, and lots of terrapins. We were fortunate to spot a Violet-backed Starling, it’s regal colouring an uncommon sight in Namibia as they are only migrant visitors. The morning drive bought an even more impressive sighting – a rhino mother with her young calf. What I found so funny were the strange squeaking noises they made, which is so incongruous with their bulky bodies.
Our next destination was Etosha. I often tell clients, staying at Okaukuejo is all about access to the park and not the quality of the accommodation. This was true on this trip! The Double Room was adequate but had seen better days. However, as soon as we unpacked our vehicle and headed to the waterhole, we were rewarded by finding a lone bull elephant having his afternoon drink followed by a good old scratch up against the iconic leadwood tree. One of the other wonders of this time of year is how beautiful the light can be – dense, bruised clouds with rays of sunlight breaking through and the air looking as if it is made of gold.
The following morning proved even better. Our first encounter was with two hyenas. They seemed unusually untroubled by our presence and came right up to the vehicle (which required us to swiftly close our windows). In fact, for several minutes we couldn’t see one of them at all as it went right up to our front bumper, possibly enjoying the fried butterflies we had managed to accumulate on our grill. We spent a good 10 minutes just watching them without encountering another vehicle. What a treat! In more popular months we would have been surrounded by cars rather than hyenas.
Elephant at Okaukuejo waterhole
Hyena near Okaukuejo
In the hope of seeing lions, we headed north towards Ondeka but were quickly distracted by a family of jackals – mum and three youngsters. The youngsters seemed to be playing pranks on each other and generally mucking about. We also came across large groups of plains animals, enjoying the fresh grass. Most had young in tow. In particular, the springbok calves were keen to test out their new-found abilities, pronking and cavorting about with great glee.
Travelling further east during the rest of the day we found that many of the waterholes had very few animals around them, although we did see some giraffe, ostriches, wildebeest, and oryx. However, the scenery was gorgeous. Knowing how stark Etosha can look, it was a joy to see water trickling through clumps of grass and winding its way into the pan, already creating the beginnings of a lake. When the water is deep enough flamingoes journey to nest in the pan – a truly spectacular sight. Etosha is one of only four breeding grounds in Africa. Breeding has only occurred a handful of times in the last 50 years.
Another rare sighting was a pair of blue cranes. Although they can be found in South Africa, according to my Roberts Bird Guide there are only about 60 in Namibia, all in Etosha. The female looked to be sitting on a nest so let’s hope that this number increases!
After a beautiful stormy night, we woke up early to journey through western Etosha and on to Hobatere Lodge. Within a few minutes of leaving Okaukuejo, we found two very sleepy lions by the side of the road. Again we manage to watch these majestic creatures for a good 20 minutes before another vehicle pulled up behind us. Our trip was further delayed by the same group of jackals we had seen the previous day, as well as a honey badger, several groups of gemsbok and springbok, large flocks of Abdim’s storks, vultures, bee-eaters, more giraffe, a solitary hartebeest and a group of kudus. Needless to say, it took us a lot longer to exit the park than we had initially imagined (c.8 hours).
The drive from the main road to Hobatere took about 30 minutes and was through lovely scenery – a mix of rust-red koppies, wooded riverbeds and scrubby bushveld. Refreshing drinks and warm smiles greeted us on our arrival. We were then transferred a few kilometres to our home for the evening, the newly renovated tree-house. Just as we headed out, the heavens opened, and we had an exciting ride through heavy rain. After our dinner was laid out and we were shown how the radios worked (the only means of contacting the lodge) Tobias made a swift retreat hoping to get back to the lodge before the rivers started to flow. The sound of the vehicle fading into the background was followed by the most almighty crack of thunder. For me, lightning storms are thrilling. Less so for my colleague! After pouring some very stiff drinks to settle the nerves, we watched in fascination as the first trickle of a river started to flow passed our room. It wasn’t long before we realised our tree-house was now on a little island. For some, this sounds a little scary; however, for us, it was wonderful. As so often in Namibia, as the rain slowed and then stopped, it didn’t take long for the water to subside. The rest of the evening was spent enjoying our tranquil surroundings on the balcony.
Birdsong was all around us the next morning. This included the deep grunting of a Verreaux’s eagle-owl which we found on our drive back to the lodge. We also encountered a hornbill enjoying a huge moth for breakfast as well as three juvenile lions hanging out in a shady riverbed.
Hobatere tree house
Verreaux's eagle owl
Thunderstorm at the tree house
After a hearty breakfast, we once again headed out for our last destination – Etendeka. Set in northern Damaraland, the landscape is typified by rugged mountains, red rock, and vast panoramas. It is not a place where you expect to see a lot of game as the average annual rainfall is minimal. Yet surprisingly, life is all around if you take the time to look.
This small eco-friendly camp is set in the foothills of the Grootberg massif, far from any habitation. The emphasis is on connecting with nature and exploring this arid wilderness with a guide who can provide insight into some of its secrets. For some people, the experience may be too rustic, but I love this kind of accommodation – a good bucket shower with just the sky as your ceiling; home-cooked meals in a solar oven; evenings sat around a fire watching the stars and making new friends.
We were lucky to have Bonny as our guide. He has been working at Etendeka for over two decades and is extremely knowledgable. Our morning drive took us to the top of ‘Crystal Mountain’ where we spent time looking at rock formations, the plant-life of this region and the tracks of various elusive animals. In contrast to Etosha, it was nice to explore the area on foot. The views were breath-taking. We also checked out the new overnight camps for the two-day hiking trips. For the more intrepid and active travellers, this is a fantastic option, although possibly better in cooler months.
Etendeka hiking camp
The next morning sadly saw us packing up for our journey back to Windhoek. Having left the capital with some doubts about travelling at this time of year, we now returned with the knowledge that for anyone who doesn’t like crowds and is a little more adventurous, it is worth it.
African thunderstorm, your soldiers march through the air The African rain will fall and wash away all my tears African falling rain African falling rain, will you bless my life? - African Sky Blue - Juluka