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Caught between a river and a hard place in Namibia, one of our planet’s wildest, driest and most alien-looking countries.

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The radio crackled to life, and Jon’s voice could be heard across all 3 cars: “Yup, I can see it flowing, guys. The Hoanib is alive.”

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A little explanation is needed. The Hoanib is one of 12 ephemeral rivers forming an ecological feature unique to Namibia. They flow for short periods of time and support specially adapted wildlife: giant mopane trees, cacti the size of a small jeep, desert elephants, and prides of desert lions that instead of water, can survive solely on their victim’s blood.

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In this remote part of Africa it doesn’t rain every year. Sometimes not for a decade. But 2017 was different. The Hoanib had already flowed once, a couple of weeks before our arrival.
What were the chances for floods to happen again?
That late in the season?

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Hoanib flowing on 2nd March 2017. Filmed by Cosmin

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RELATED

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Safari 1

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10,000 kms loop into Botswana, Namibia & South Africa

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From where we stood, the Hoanib looked angry.
A raging torrent, formidably dark with silt.

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While the others regrouped by the water, Jon took his shoes and pants off.
“I’ll try to find a way across.” 

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Jon attempting to find a stable shallow path across the Hoanib, and failing.

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The current was strong. He stumbled. Brown waves almost pushed him off his feet. Meanwhile a leaves-chewing wildly-shouting family of baboons beckoned from the far bank, adding to the drama.

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Jon returned caked in mud with an obvious verdict: “Without a winch we won’t pass.“

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Changing fortunes

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We were back in Africa for the 4th time, leading our 2nd Adventure Safari into Namibia, one of the wildest and most alien-looking countries, sparsely populated by strange wildlife and ancient tribes. It is a place like no other. If you ever wanted to travel to another planet, this is as close as it gets. Last year’s Safari took place at the height of the austral winter. This time we wanted to show our guests how the driest country south of the Sahara is transformed by rain.

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We planned a loop from the rugged west, to the border of Botswana.
Roughly 2500 kilometres.

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Green line: route of Safari 1. Magenta line: route planned for Safari 2.

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Nobody knew then that we’d have to do 1000 kms more. That on this Adventure Safari resilience, not the GPS, would be our best tool.

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For the first 100kms or so we rolled eastward on a smooth single lane tar with fenced farms on all sides. Then we hit gravel. The veld, usually more similar to an unkempt beard, was now glistening with rain drops. You could reach out in any direction and touch green: tiny buds on acacias, thistles in bloom, flowers poking from sand. Above hanged our first rainbow on the trip. A double. We immediately abandoned our vehicles and started abusing the smartphones in a futile attempt to capture the psychedelic hues of a sunset that only Namibia can deliver.

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That night’s bivouac was pitched in the granite wonderland of Spitzkoppe. Before climbing into our roof tents for a night of bliss, the group was introduced into the sport of braai-ing a beef fillet to perfection while sipping on sundowners, in typical South-African fashion. The next 10 days would offer as many chances to enjoy a year’s worth of steaks. Diet? What diet?

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Safari bivouac. Photo by Razvan.

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Scorpions of southern Africa are generally not dangerous to humans, except for this buthid (fam. Buthidae), commonly referred to as a thick-tailed scorpion. Easier to observe with an UV light.

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Parabuthus granulatus observed at Spitzkoppe. It is highly poisonous.

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Spitzkoppe is a place where you want to wake up early. Dawn brings a bewildering show of colors, from deep purple to magenta, from coral to yellow, and soft hues of brown.

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The hiking routes can keep anyone entertained for days. There are hyraxes, shrews and many other critters roaming all over the place.

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Leaving Spitzkoppe I could not help but think that these mountains must had been thrown from the sky, rather than pushed out of the veld.

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As soon as we could get some 3G, we learned that Spitzkoppe is in fact a mountain formed by millions of years of erosion of the Damara Orogen, a layer of rock dated 750 to 450 million years old. When the Gondwana supercontinent split into the two continents of Africa and South America 130 million years ago, volcanic events forced up large amounts of magma, which cooled, hardened, and eventually became eroded by elements into what we see today at Spitzkoppe.

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Typical Damaraland view.

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Learn more

about the unique geology of Namibia.

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We made our way north-west across Damaraland. It appeared deceptively unchanged since the dry spell of austral winter.

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Whenever we stopped to explore, we’d find the desert alive with spiny flowers, some adorned with equally flamboyant-looking insects. Geodes, desert rose, and all kind of rocks scattered in the desert. Ana never went anywhere without her field guide. Even the briefest run into the bushes to take care of intimate business yielded some interesting discovery – a giraffe footprint, some roden’t spoor, or an aardvark burrow she loved to talk about.

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Clockwise: Catophractes alexandri, a spiny scrub used as medicinal tea and popular food for black rhinos, Help me identify this flower, Ornithoglossum vulgare, Euphorbia gregaria in southern Palmwag Concession, Damselfly photographed at Spitzkoppe.

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Learn more:

What’s the difference

between Dragonflies and Damselflies?

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Don’t ever try to drive into such desolated lands without chugging at least a few beers. “Drunks never have flat tires” postulated Vittal back in 2012, and Vittal is never wrong. The curse is real.

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Paul had inadvertently disregarded the omen. Sure enough, at the Palmwag gas station we discovered that he had a flat.

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Rushing to fix the flat before the day ended.

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We camped not far from the Palmwag gate, on a small hill with an incredible view across the Etendeka Plateau. This rugged wilderness is only half of a massive geological province. The other half of Paraná-Etendeka spans Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina and Uruguay! Can we pretend that we slept in South America?

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Vew over Etendeka Plateau.

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The lions from Etosha National Park and Hobatere Concession move regularly through the southern, western and northern boundary fences, onto Etendeka’s adjacent communal farmland. We were not surprised to hear at least one lion grunting at dawn. The sounds came from somewhere beyond the ridge, to the west of our camp.

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Coffee brewed, rusks dunked, dishes washed and firepit covered with dirt, we were ready for another glorious day in Namibia.

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Progress was slow. We spent the entire day navigating rocky tracks which kept winding into the distance, over rolling hills, up flat-topped mountains, and across stark plains. The place was almost devoid of animals. The closest thing to being on another planet I could imagine.

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The Palmwag Concession supports Africa’s largest free-roaming population of desert-adapted black rhino and desert-adapted elephant, as well as many other mammals and plants. All wildlife must survive on the very little moisture provided by the the Atlantic Ocean, which is 40kms farther to our west. When the icy Benguela Current meets the hot desert air of the Skeleton Coast, it drifts inland, eventually condensing into fog. Despite the harsh environment, the endemic Welwitschias manage to live longer than any other plants on Earth. The rest of the Palmwag is dominated by dwarf savanna shrubs like Euphorbia gregaria.

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Male Welwitschia mirabilis. These prehistoric plants are on average 500-600 years old, with larger specimens thought to be 2000 years old!

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North from the dry riverbed of Mudorib we stumbled on the remains of a smaller giraffe. The meat, hair, and skull were completely gone. There were no drag marks, no spoor or any other evidence in the close vicinity to tell what had happened. It could have been killed by a predator, or maybe the giraffe was just sick, and after it died its body was consumed by carrion feeders. We were intrigued.

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The day was spent. There is nothing like pitching camp in the wild. When night comes, the air is damp with the uncanny scent of beasts. At the edge of the human world, you feel small again.

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After such a great bivouac we were stoked to drive into the Hoanib. Imagine our shock when instead of a swathe of sand, we found a churning river!

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As we scouted in vain for a potential crossing, we registered disappointment in everyone’s eyes. It was after all the enticement of desert elephants that has brought us there. Elephants who were now roaming beyond an un-passable boundary.
Our plans needed to be retailored.
That’s it, we have to drive back. 

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Jon returned to the cars and laid out the Tracks4Africa map on the hood. As if adding items to a shopping list, he pointed out the other ephemeral rivers that we had crossed so easily a day before. “Those will not stay dry for long,” he said. “We’d better get moving, or we’ll get stuck.”

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Razvan, Marius and Cosmin looking at the Hoanib river.

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Then, just like that, the most amazing illusion of my life happened.
As we drove south of Hoanib, a slender, 4-legged thing walked in front of the car.
A second one followed.
A shadow.
I blinked.
Whatever that was, it had already vanished behind a sandy ridge.
Jon grabbed the radio: “A cheetah! On the right.” Roxana doubled down: “There’s two of them!”

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It took us a few minutes to drive around and up on the flat area stretching between two rocky outcrops. The place was very similar to our previous bivouac, the most notable difference being the male cheetah curiously staring back. His female called from a few feet up.
They scrambled.
Is that their lair? Cubs?
My heart skipped a beat.

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Seeing double: Cheetah couple photographed on 2/3/17 around 11 a.m. south of Hoanib river.

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Hours later, as we retraced our route across the southern part of Palmwag Concession, I was still haunted by the cheetah sighting. It also puzzled me that we had made it that far north without a warning. The Concession does not monitor the rivers? Why did the Palmwag people not know about the floods?

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In 5 hours we spotted a few Springboks, an ostrich, a gemsbok, a side-striped jackal and a bunch of juvenile White-backed vultures accompanied by at least a couple of adult Lappet-faced Vultures. Had no idea these two latter species could hang out. Halfway through the Conservancy we crossed path with a large convoy, 20-25 4x4s strong. The South African drivers laughed at our warning. “We don’t plan to cross the Hoanib today,” they said.

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Our troubles were far from being over. The rain spared us while we fixed a flat tyre – Paul’s second in under 24 hours. Then, as soon as we rejoined the main road and made a turn east, all hell broke loose. The Hoanib was by now overflowing even upstream, Ongongo campsite was flooded, the waterfall murky. I’d hate to imagine that if we hadn’t made the u-turn, we could have been trapped between the Hoanib and another flowing river!

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We decided that we deserved compensation for all the setbacks, so we called our friends from the awesome Oppi-Koppi Rest Camp to tell them that we were arriving one day early. They had been growing weary about the extreme weather pattern, and were prepared to come look for us. The change of plans allowed us to celebrate Ana’s birthday with the famous Mega Pizza and more rounds of Jagermeister than we could handle, to stock on game meat from the Kamanjab Impala Meat Market (our choice since 2012!), to do a invigorating hike, to see the resident weaver birds, porcupines and mongooses, and finally to treat ourselves to a visit to a Himba village.

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We have been fascinated with the Himba culture since learning about this semi-nomadic tribe from a film. Babies documents the first two years in the lives of 4 infants from Mongolia, Japan, Namibia and the US. After watching it, we decided to spend some time in a Himba community, in order to learn more about their way of life.
For us, it was a slow, extraordinary experience. Quite famous for their physical appearance, the Himbas are pastoralist, polygamist, and patriarchal, and have a non-linear concept of time. Instead of the regular ticking of an a priori pendulum, the Himba track personal events. When nothing happens, time simply stands still. Don’t tell a Himba “I don’t have time” or ask “how old are you?” To them, it wouldn’t make any sense.
Nowadays the Himbas are frequently visited by tourists like us, which may contribute to their eventual demise.

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Season of Love

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The fun and games continued well into Etosha National Park, where our birthday girl got a stunning rhino sighting ?

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During our time in Etosha we would see no less than four black rhinos. Each sighting deserves its own little story.

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This first male greeted us as we drove into the park and kept grazing an arm’s length away from our bewildered faces. Once he was full, he marked his territory by spraying urine on the bushes, then went away.

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This was a female. We suspected she was in oestrus, for she crossed the plains very fast, constantly sniffing around. Was she perhaps looking to mate with “our” bull?

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The third rhino, another bull, was spotted with binoculars from a km or so away. It took him about 20 min to go around the gemsboks and then across the road.

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We completely forgot to photograph the fourth rhino because of this incredible hyena encounter.
Further on, we saw a family of elephants making their way into the plains, but something kept us rolling past. Two safari jeeps were parked on the left side of a secondary road leading to the Etosha Pan. That could only mean one thing – there was something worth looking at! “Is that… a lion?” said Roxana. We gawked in disbelief: the king of the savannah had come out of the thicket and was staring back to the jeeps. He strutted by our cars. Moment later, he was gone. We barely had time to snap his muscular torso and his perfect mane. Wow, just wow!

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We approached the safari guides. They told us that 5 female lions had killed a giraffe the day before, and now the carcass was rotting in the bush. They were surprised to hear that they had missed the lion. Everybody had been tracking this guy all morning, his footprints were all over the road. “He’s looking for the females to mate,” they said.

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Challenging for the traveler, bountiful for all the grazers, the wet season is definitely Etosha’s Season of Love. We saw vast herds of springbok, gemsbok, red hartebeest, and impala, black wildebeest and giraffes, all toting their young. Zebra stallions made no effort to conceal their burning desire. There were nursing warthogs – whom we affectionately call “the friends”, vulture chicks about to fledge on top of trees, and a choir of horny insects at night. No wonder that this is the season when carnivores thrive. “If you see our lions… oh, my God! They are so big,” had said the receptionist from Halali campsite.
Well, we did. She was right.

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A giraffe carcass was still decaying where we’d first seen back in August.

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Giraffe carcass photographed in August 2016.

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The same giraffe carcass photographed in February 2017.

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We had promised our guests a lot of drama in the sky. 2017 delivered. This was a year of exceptional rains, following almost half a decade of extreme drought. “Technically” the wet season is not “ideal” for wildlife viewing, but, if you have the chance, try to go to Africa when it rains. The movement in the clouds is astonishing. You can spot incredible bolts, and the blue hail core of a storm hanging over the plains. The Etosha pan is covered by a thin layer of water and becomes one of the biggest natural mirrors on Earth – blurring the line between two endless blue planes in an illusion similar to the one offered by Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni.

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As we departed Etosha the heavens opened. Huge swathes of rain were dumped on the plain. This slowed us down a bit, so if you add the lunch picnic, a group selfie, a tortoise encounter, and posing with the guard at the veterinary fence, you can see why by the time we were officially into Bushmanland, the sky was already on fire from the setting sun.

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Getting dark within minutes, guys! There was a slight opening into the left thicket. A chance we’d have to take. “Wait here,” we told the others. “We’ll check if this is leading to any suitable spot.”

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Indeed it was. A superb clearing lined with the softest sand. Pristine. It looked like it was waiting for us for centuries. One of the best bivouacs ever, and possibly one of the best braais any of us will ever have as well.
We woke up to an aurora-borealis-like sky. It was frankly very hard to pack our bivouac and leave this magical place.

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Dream Team

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There had been nothing too easy about our Safari so far. We had three more days to go – two in a Bushman community, one on the way back to the capital. Well, if “hard-earned” is the price you pay for “adventure”, it seems that we had not paid our dues yet.

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First, we got stuck two and a half kms down the track. After towing the cars, we were able to advance another few hundred meters to a place where the track descends into the plains, now completely underwater. Jon waded again into the swamp. Again, we had to accept defeat. To avoid more disasters, two drivers were designated to get the cars to firmer ground. The others formed a block and walked back while making as much noise as possible. We were after all in a wildlife reserve, and sure enough, as he walked back to retrieve the third car, Jon photographed the fresh prints of a lion.

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When asked “what to expect?” we usually tell our guests to expect… the unexpected. After hours of digging, pushing, and mud-sloshing in the wilds of Bushmanland, we were all exhausted. But as as drenched in sweat as we were, you could still see the twinkle in everyone’s eyes. That, my friends, is the joy of sharing your journey with others.

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So we licked our wounds, and drove west on the main road. Again, we had proposed an alternative plan to our group: to return to Etosha for a third game drive. We made to the Onguma campsite in the nick at time, through a thunderstorm that made us slam on the brakes every time another gigantic lightning bolt would land an inch too close. Our final torment.

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“When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.”
—  Haruki Murakami

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At dawn on the 7th of  March, you could tell that the day was going to be good. The few cool hours from 6 to 10 a.m were full of magical encounters!

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There were many things to talk about at our last bivouac, around our last bushfire in Namibia. Perhaps too many. So instead of stories, we like to believe that each of us shared a quiet plegde:

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“I shall be back.”

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Clockwise: Roxana, Dan, Jon, Ana, Cosmin, Paul, Vilian & Marius. Namibia offered us the opportunity to be on literally alien ground: Hoba meteorite, world’s largest.

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Previous Safari

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Safari 1

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