After a rather uneventful trip down the Orange River, Rich and I were happy to be on the road once more. What lay ahead of us over the next two days included an experience that I doubt either of us will ever forget. We were off and headed into the desert.
Leaving the Orange River behind, we woke up this morning to begin the journey towards Drifters’ Desert Camp. We were going to have a long day of driving today, but at the least we were going to have one tourist stop on the way – Fish River Canyon. Fish River Canyon is the second largest canyon in the world (the Grand Canyon in the United States being the largest) at over 176 kilometers long.
Making for a good show on the way to Fish River Canyon, we got our very first glimpse of oryxes and meerkats. A group of meerkats were living on the side of the road we were driving down, and as we drove past, a few of them stuck their heads out of their holes. When we stopped to take a look, the lot of them starting popping out, interested in what was going on, but diving back underground each time we started making too much noise.
Despite their inherent cuteness, we couldn’t watch the meerkats for long and continued down a dusty road towards the canyon. Large and beautiful though the canyon may be, I think that by this point in the trip I’d become quite sleep deprived due to cold overnight temperatures keeping me awake. I spent the hour we had in this location mindlessly following Rich around the canyon’s edge. While he photographed everything we saw, oohing and ahhing at the great cliff faces, the river running through, and the canyon’s wide array of colors, I could only think about two things – how much would it hurt to accidentally fall over the side of the cliff, and getting back to the bus so I could sleep.
What a relief it was when I could climb back on board and take a nap…
From Fish River Canyon we were headed towards the Drifters’ Desert Camp. The Desert Camp is a private nature reserve owned by Drifters, giving evidence to support our choice to travel through Africa with a group rather than on our own. Had we not been with Drifters, it would have been highly unlikely that we would have found, or been allowed entrance into what proved to be a really stunning reserve.
Driving into the reserve, we found an abundance of wildlife. Several springbok leapt into our path, sprinting down the road ahead of us. Traveling deeper into the reserve and towards what would be our campsite and home base for the next two nights, we encountered an oryx that we would later begin referring to as Oscar.
To our delight, there were some really lovely toilet facilities at the campsite – BJ’s earlier concerns about our likely not having clean toilets during our time in Namibia was certainly not coming true.
After setting up camp, we went for a stroll over the boulders that made up a solid wall behind our camp – climbing up to get the best perspective we could of the scene around us. From atop the wall of boulders we could see for what seemed like hundreds of kilometers, and out onto large, open savanna – full of tall grass, the occasional umbrella acacia tree, withering manketti trees, hills made almost exclusively of boulders, and antelope trotting along in the distance.
For the first time all trip, we all felt like we were really in Africa.
We woke up the next morning to some very unusual weather conditions for this part of the world – wind and a significant chill. From all that we had heard, this area of Namibia was meant to be hot, dry, and still – and yet, the wind was pounding so hard at times that we could barely hear our neighbors.
Getting moving, this morning we were to take a long walk around the reserve, and then cap off the day with a safari drive through the area. As the lot of us plodded through high grass, we saw little other than our friend Oscar and learned how to identify various animal poops (they are all different – even male and female giraffes poop differently from one another). For the time being, we assumed that the animals were all being scared off by the wind and had gone to some unknown location to seek shelter.
After about an hour on our feet though, the wind began the slow process of dying down. As we turned around to head back towards camp, we encountered a horned adder slithering its way through sand and up a cluster of boulders. The small little guy, likely only around 30 or so centimeters, is venomous, and I gave it my distance while Rich and a few others clamored around it to get photos.
Progressing past the adder, we found ourselves on a cliff side, overlooking the desert below. Perched on top of this cliff we could see several springbok and oryxes in the distance. Though cute, they didn’t hold our interest for long. In the distance we spotted a group of 5 giraffes, 4 adults and 1 child, chowing down on the long grass – a surprise, given that we had all assumed that the giraffes would much rather be eating leaves off an acacia tree.
Heading back to camp once the giraffes had moved on, we were treated to a lovely brunch, all while sociable weaver birds flew in and out of camp to pick at our lost scraps. I busied myself with some washing – Rich had packed much too light for this trip and was running out of clothes fast (only 3 shirts!), forcing me to have to wash our clothes in a bucket I found and then hang everything out to dry over a wooden frame that shielded our campsite from the sun.
A few hours later, the lot of us were picked up from our campsite by our safari guide for the evening. We were starting the safari during daylight, but would continue on through the dark and see if we could spot any nocturnal animals. Our guide was quite excellent – he’d let us stop and look at the sites whenever we liked, and take the time out to explain everything there was to know about the animal we were looking at – what it was, how it survived, what it ate, its mating patterns, etc.
Driving through the reserve we encountered hundreds of animals, including herds of oryx, giraffes, bat-eared foxes, hawks, ostriches, mongooses, rock hyraxes (though they look like guinea pigs, these guys have a bark similar to a witch’s cackle), owls, African wildcats, and plenty of pronking springbok. Occasionally, we’d be allowed out of the truck to take a quick walk around the reserve (as long as we stayed near the truck), and watched the sky turn purple as the sun set behind the reserve’s many hills.
The real highlight though was the leopard. After the sun had gone down and night settled in, we were finishing up our drive and headed back to camp. However, we were turned around when CL, one of the Norwegian girls, announced that she had lost her sweater off the back of the truck. When the recovery effort was completed, we got back on track and it was not long before we came face-to-truck with a leopard! Leopards are considered to be the rarest to spot of Africa’s Big 5 animals – this though is not because there are so few of them (rhinos are the rarest in terms of numbers), but rather because they don’t want to be seen and are quite good at hiding.
When we stumbled across the fast-moving leopard, even our guide became overjoyed, bouncing around in excitement, calling back into our group for a set of binoculars so that he could better see it, and chasing it around with a spotlight. In all his years of working at the Drifters reserve, it turns out that this was only the second time he had ever seen a leopard while with a group. (Sadly we were unable to get a photo due to poor light conditions and the speed of the big cat).
Several people hugged our dear Norwegian friend for losing her jacket. Had we not had to go back for it, we might have not encountered the leopard. None of us could believe our luck. Only a few days into our tour and yet here was the hardest to spot of them all. We were definitely going to see all of the Big 5 now (leopard, lion, elephant, buffalo, rhino).
As it were, it was also CL’s birthday. Arriving back into camp, we were greeted by the smell of BBQ’ed dinner and a birthday cake baked in a hole in the ground, heated by hot coals. Now that is something I’d like to try on my own one day… It was a very good night.