Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Doing it For the Kids

February 2, 2011

In addition to my dayjob as a rather bad IT Specialist with the Ministry of Health and my nightjob as unofficial Tafel lager taster and Shebeen reviewer I occasionally, usually by accident, end up involved on the periphery of some good works for the Children of Namibia.

Here are two examples of the aforementioned good works.

Cheshire Home, Katima Mulilo

The Leonard Cheshire Foundation is an international charity who support people with disabilities. Part of their work focuses on helping children with disabilities to access education.

In Namibia they have two Cheshire Homes where children live and are cared for so are able to access schooling that would be otherwise impossible for them to reach.

The Katima Mulilo home is run by a dedicated group of Polish nuns and caters to a large number of children with various disabilities as well as providing outreach services to the local community. VSO have a physiotherapist placed in the home who is a good friend of mine and provides rehabilitation services for the children and the surrounding community.

Last Easter I was in Katima Mulilo (it’s as far as you can go in Namibia being right at the end of the Caprivi strip after which you fall off into Zambia, Zimbabwe or Botswana). My main work in Katima was with the Ministry of Education (arranged by another VSO volunteer) and I went around prodding computers in school and trying to “share skills” with the local technician.

In addition though I spent some time at the Cheshire Home and helped them sort out and setup a computer lab with donated equipment. This involved testing it and then (as most of it worked but the operating system was banjacksed) showing some of the older kids how to install Windows and various cool bits of educational software. We then did a few nights of training/playing.

Cheshire Home Katima Mulilo Computer Lab

Computer Lab at Cheshire Home Katima Mulilo

Katima Mulilo Cheshire Home Computer Lab

Please note of course that I didn’t get the computers (they were already donated), prepare the room (already done), wire the sockets (done by a VSO NVP) or even rearrange the desks myself (done by the kids). I just plugged some stuff in and failed to rewrite an extension cord.

I also did a bit of fault-fixing on the staff computers which led to the bizarre experience of being in a deathly quiet convent trying not to swear at a particularly obstinate printer.

Mother Bear Khorixas

The Mother Bear Project is a US charity that aims to “provide comfort and hope to children affected by HIV/AIDS in emerging nations, by giving them a gift of live in the form of a hand-knit or crocheted bear”.

The donation of the bears for the Sunrise Orphan and Vulnerable Children (OVC) home in Khorixas was all arranged by my most excellent Peace Corps two-office-down buddy Anika.

As I was going to Khorixas to fail to fix some computers I acted as a driver for the trip. The rumour that I only got involved because I thought we were giving away live bears is false and I utterly refute it. Though that would be cool.

Sunrise is run as a Red Cross project and provides a lovely hostel and food for quite a number of children.

The kids were all over the moon with their bears, even the older ones who did their best to play it cool.

Anika’s account can be found here on her blog.

Mother Bear Donation at Sunrise OVC Project in Khorixas, Namibia

Mother Bear Donation to Sunrise Red Cross OVC Project in Khorixas, Namibia

Once again please note that I had nothing to do with the arrangement of this excellent donation. I just drove there, handed out a few bears, basked in the smiles of the children and then played catch with a few of them while the adults talked serious stuff.

A Festive Tale of Woe

January 21, 2011

And lo they did see the light shining like a star down upon them. “Hark!” said they, the two wise women and two unwise men, “is that yonder star showing us the way to our saviour?”. “No” came a voice from above, “it is verily the light of the Condor which has caught fire”.

How I Tempted Fate

In the week(s) before the trip I fettled the Mighty Condor; fixed the handbrake (well tightened it), sorted the gauges (replaced a fuse), saw the reverse lights illumate for the first time in six months (mate reached underneath and plugged in the cable I’d missed), got two new tyres (making a total of six good and actually inflated), bought some spanners, checked the many fluid levels including various oils and shock of shocks had it cleaned.

The Plan

Go with John, Emily and Ann (Peace Corps co-vols) to a cheetah farm in Kamanjab and thence to Swakopmund at the coast for festive drinking, frollicking and as much debauchary as can be arranged for 20 whole Namibian dollars.

The Actuality

We set off only slightly later than planned and drove the 2 1/2 hours to the Otjitotongwe Cheetah Farm just outside Kamanjab.

I’ve previously been to the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) which is near Otjiwarongo [EDIT 23/01/2011 *]. For your information the Kamanjab Farm is seems better and cheaper from a purely poor-vol-tourist perspective [EDIT 30/01/2011 **].

For N$150 you get to camp, meet the tame cheetahs, see them fed and then go out to see the feeding of the wild cheetahs.

So at 4pm we were in the farmhouse garden and three tame cheetahs wandered over and started licking us and purring away like some sort of massive and scary version of my cat.

Tame Cheetah at Otjitotongwe Cheetah Farm Kamanjab

They were all very well behaved and obviously like human contact, especially licking you with their extremely rough tongues. Once I overcame the natural inhibition with sticking my hand anywhere near their massive teeth or claws it was excellent to pet them.

Tame Cheetah at Otjitotongwe Cheetah Farm Kamanjab

After a while their food was brought out and each one took a piece of meat from the bucket and lay down to eat. We were advised not to get too close while they were eating and it was a chance to admire their fangs in action. While they ate we talked to the guys about the cheetahs and these three in particular.

We then headed (via a crazy bar with an elephants ears and trunk mounted on the wall) into the enclosure where the wild ones are. They quickly were stalking the bakkie as it drove to the feeding point.

These were a different kettle of fish, you can see straight away there is none of the softness or gentle plodding of the tame animals. They look and act like wild animals, fighting amongst themselves and calling each other with weirdly high-pitched birdlike sounds. The two guys then get out with nothing but a stick and start chucking lumps of donkey and goat out once all the cats were present.

Wild Cheetah Jumps for Meat at Otjitotongwe Cheetah Farm Kamanjab Namibia

Cheetah Jumps for Food at Otjitotongwe Cheetah Farm

The trick apparently (not that I wanted to try it) to getting out of the car with nothing more than a stick is to never bend down as cheetahs don’t attack large prey. Of course they also mentioned that every now and again a very unlucky Kudu jumps the fence and is quickly devoured (given that a Kudu is as tall if not taller than a man this seems to contradict the “you’re safe if you stay standing up” line but they’re the experts).

So after a jolly good time was had by all we drove into Kamanjab for some dinner and then headed back which is where it all went a bit wrong.

The Disaster

The farm is about 8km off the main road and just a few kilos down their track the Condor died the a splutter and failed to magically restart.

I opened the bonnet and quickly used up all my mechanical skills by checking that nothing obvious had fallen off and that the air filter was clean. I waggled a few fuel lines and considered loosening a nut to see if there was petrol getting through but didn’t as I thought I really hadn’t much of a clue what I was doing, the engine was hot and petrol is dangerous.

Having dispatched John and Emily to walk to the farm for help we realised we actually had cellphone coverage so I called the farm, apologised for bothering them and wondered if they could tow us to the campsite.

Soon the guys who had taken us round the cheetahs turned up in their bakkie and with an impressive array of tools and more confidence than me starting looking for the problem. When they got to the fuel system they did loosen a nut on the filter and just had time to say “yep, there’s fuel” when a combination of that fuel and a hot engine led to a whomf and orange flames springing forth.

Emily and Ann were inside the car when this happened and didn’t need me yelling to get out before they leaped clear as I grabbed the water container from the back. We quickly threw dirt (in plentiful supply) over the engine though and the fire was thankfully put out as suddenly as it had started.

Discretion being the better part of valour we decided to call it a day on fault-finding so disconnected the battery in case and tightened the filter back up. As a precaution non-essential personnel (or valuable personnel) went in the farm bakkie so it was just me in the Flaming Condor towed back to the campsite.

In the morning I was up at first light expecting the worst and found wonder of wonders that nothing at all had been damaged in the fire. There was some cool streaks of soot under the bonnet but all the delicate hoses and myriad of electrical cables were entirely unscathed.

We were towed up to the farmhouse and with a cool engine, isolated battery, ample tools and great assistance of the owner tried once again to figure out what was wrong hopefully without a full re-enactment of the night before.

The engine was blown clean with their impressive full on compressor and various bits and bobs tinkered with including blowing back and forth through the fuel system to clear any blockage.

I looked up to find a cheetah had decided to get into the car and was now munching away on my road map. Gallantly I told John he should get the cheetah out of the car which he failed to do as “here kitty kitty” didn’t seem to cut the mustard. In fact when the cheetah figured out we wanted it out she climbed further into the back and started sniffing rucksacks.

Cheetah Refusing to Get Out of the Car at Otjitotongwe

We had to ask the owner of the farm for assistance who deployed the multi-purpose compressor once again to make a hissing noise that sounds like a snake. Just before we’d been standing in front of the open rear door when the realisation we were in the path of a soon to be scared cheetah was made so we moved sharpish. A large dog wasn’t so lucky and was run over as the cheetah bolted (fast like, well, a cheetah).

Taking out a plug met with a hiss of air, the spark was good and the Condor now started on three and then (once the plug was replaced) four cylinders. In a triumphant scene we drove away from the farmhouse thinking about an airlock or temporary fuel blockage only for it to clonk out again 200m down the road.

By now we had narrowed stuff down and it seemed the fuel pump was the culprit. Like a lot of modern fuel injection cars this sits inside the Condor’s fuel tank so is nigh impossible to get at easily. Being Christmas Eve all the local garages were shut but the owners managed to find a mechanic on leave who said he would come and have a look.

While waiting me and John took out a rear seat hoping to find some sort of fueltank access panel but no luck.

When the guy came out he diagnosed the pump in less than five minutes, found the fuse had blown (brief bit of hope but when replaced same story) and then spent a while underneath tapping things with a rock while I turned the ignition on and off when commanded.

Diagnosis: fuel pump shot. Being Christmas Eve there was no hope of getting a replacement sorted so I had to accept leaving the Condor behind until some future time. We left her in a field guarded by two ostriches.

Escape From Kamanjab

Again the farm owners were absolutely excellent and said it was no problem to leave it there and sort it out once everything was open. They then gave us a lift into Kamanjab.

Christmas Eve night we stayed at the Kamanjab Rest Camp which is about 4km out of town. Like everyone else the Rest Camp owners went above and beyond; opening up the closed-for-xmas restaurant so we could have Christmas Eve dinner, letting us buy them out of beer and cooking an excellent breakfast Christmas morning.

We also met a German chap who was coming up for half-way through a motorcycle tour of Africa, starting in Germany he was heading down the West coast and made it to Namibia with the intention to carry on to South Africa then go back to Europe up the East Coast.

On Christmas Day after a hearty breakfast the owners gave us a lift into Kamanjab to try and hitchhike back to Opuwo.

Long story short I left it to my Peace Corps colleagues who “know hiking” to fail to get us a lift. In the end me and John went to the garage to canvass cars and on the third one a couple on their way to Angola said we could all get in if we could fit. Well yes indeed we could.

They dropped us off at the junction to Opuwo and we spent another little while sitting in the shade. A car with two seats came along so being the kind of gentlemen we are the ladies went first. In fact their car made it 100m and then pulled into a bar while me and John immediately got a lift in a combi which overtook the now-stationary car and flew back to Opuwo.

Brief bit of fun at a police checkpoint where, for the first time ever, I had to prove my legal residency in Namibia and we were home free. Home free to sit on our respective steps and wait for our keys which were with the other two as they had left first.

The Aftermath

When things reopened between Christmas and New Year I was able to track down a pump thanks to the excellent Marko Spares in Otjiwarongo. Sadly logistics are not always that straightforward in Namibia.

They could send it with NamPost but I couldn’t pay them the courier fee, it would be paid on delivery. The cheetah farm had been really, absolutely and amazingly excellent to us but I drew the line at asking them to pay for my courier charges.

So I had the pump delivered to Opuwo, paid the fee and had it just long enough to look at it and get a mechanically-minded friend to confirm it was the right thing before going to NamPost and re-couriering it to Kamanjab. Now you may think that with the NamPost truck it came on still idling outside there’d be a good chance it would arrive maybe sameday? No.

It then went back to Otjiwarongo (through Kamanjab of course), sat there for a week and then was delivered to the PO Box of the farm.

Once I managed to get an answer from NamPost it had been delivered I could ring the farm and ask them to collect it when they got their mail and also call the mechanic who came out over Christmas to ask him to go back to the farm and fit it.

He did this last Saturday and confirmed the Mighty Condor was once again purring like a mechanical cheetah.

The Recovery

On Wednesday I hopped aboard the 6am patient bus that went through Kamanjab and after getting dropped off on the main road hiked the 8km to the farm. Profusely thanked the owner for everything and in small token of my appreciated gave them a bottle of whisky (I actually managed to find in Opuwo amongst the dual-use whisky/paint-stipper a bottle of Jamesons).

Of course the battery was totally flat so it took some “jump charging” (not jump starting as was totally dead and the leads weren’t quite up to the job) before the Condor roared into life.

After a little while tinkering with make-work and waiting until I was confident the battery would start it again if I stalled I careened through the mud and back to the main road. Quick stop in Kamanjab to meet the mechanic, more thanks and some exchange of dollars and I was off back to Opuwo safe and sound.

The Condor is now back majestically sitting in front of the house and starts every time again. The only vestige of the trouble is the soon to be washed off sooty marks under the bonnet which I show people with pride.

And Finally…

Thank you Otjitotongwe Cheetah Farm, thank you Kamanjab Rest Camp, thank you Adolph the mechanic, thank you Marko Spares and even thank you NamPost who (eventually) delivered the right part to the right place.

Serious disaster averted thanks to the kindness of strangers. I know who my saviours were over Christmas and New Year 2010/11!

Edit Notes:

* The “near Otjiwarongo” text has been changed after feedback from the CCF. They never claimed they were in Otjiwarongo rather it was assumed by me and my companions. I apologise for the inaccuracy.

** I originally opined that Otjitotongwe was “a million times better than CCF”. Following some discussion with CCF I would like to make clear that I was talking from a purely tourst experience point-of-view. CCF exist as primarily as a hardcore research centre offering education rather than tourist experiences (though I should point out that Otjitotongwe’s entire revenue from tourists goes to the costs of keeping their cheetahs housed and happy so they’re not an “in it for the money” tourist cash cow either). CCF do a variety of research (including genetic research which unfortunately isn’t geared towards crossing a cheetah with an elephant, making a warecheetah or a zombie cheetah) and run re-homing project aiming to put cheetahs back in the wild.

Herero Wedding

January 4, 2011

In early December I had the chance to attend a colleague’s traditional Herero wedding in Otjokavare. Though the ceremony (that part of it at least) went on for the whole weekend we decided to attend on the Sunday morning.

Originally there were 7 of us from the office to go so I had a full car. On the morning this turned into 6, then 5, then 4, then 3, then 2 and ultimately back to 3.

It took about 2 hours to get to Otjokavare, a village just above the Red Line (i.e. just with us in bandit-cow country).

Decorated Bridal Hut

We found the place easily enough as they had been kind enough to put a big sign on the bridal hut (please note I’m sure this and every other term I wrongly use have proper Otjiherero names and all that but I don’t know them). Muuaa is, I’m assured, our colleague who I know by three other entirely different names.

I was allowed into the Bridal Hut as an honorary relative (the only men allowed inside). The bride stays in the hut for over a week before the ceremony living in a kind of bridal tent inside the bridal hut.

Herero Wedding Bridal Tent

Apparently for the last week the groom had been coming to sleep inside the hut as well but they were not allowed to talk to each other even to answer a simple question like “where are my shoes”.

Lots of family were turning up and in high spirits. Plenty came in and posed with the bride in or out of the tent.

Bride and family inside Bridal Tent

Children Looking at Digital Pictures of a Herero Bride

After a while the proper business of the day began and a procession came up the road of the groom and his family.

Procession of the Groom at a Herero Wedding

The groom is the guy in the middle with the funky white hat on.

Once the groom was down at the holy fire the bride and her family processed down as well.

Procession of the bride to the ceremony

Everyone gathered at the holy fire, the bride and groom sitting next to each other but with eyes fixed downward. A village elder (one of the brides uncles) then led the ceremony which unfortunately I didn’t understand a word of though it was explained to me in dribs and drabs.

Herero Wedding Holy Fire Ceremony

The memorable bits were a staged argument between the family of the bride and that of the groom over the dowry and how good a wife the bride would make and the spitting.

The uncle drank from a cup (of water I think) then spat it liberally first over the bride and then after another mouthful over the groom.

Herero Wedding Holy Fire Ceremony - 2

Having not been clever enough to realise there would be a lot of standing in the open at the holy fire and without a hat or sunblock I retreated discretely to the shade of a nearby tree.

Herero Wedding Holy Fire Ceremony - 3

One of the children decided to come and pull me back into the circle but when that failed was happy to play “Injo, Arikana… Rar!” with me which is my Otjiherero version of “Come here, please… [then when the child approaches] RAR!” (repeat ad nausium or until said child gets bored and decides to start plucking your arm-hair instead).

Child at the Herero Wedding

When the ceremony was finished the bride and groom were loaded up and sent off to the groom’s family home (in Gobabis some 800km away) for another part of the ceremony. There was lots of wheel spinning, blowing of horns and wishing of luck.

It was all excellent fun and a good chance to have a cultural insight and meet new people many of whom I keep bumping into in Opuwo.

Eight Go Mad in Epupa

November 23, 2010

Some time ago the idea was mooted of a Boy’s Own Adventure in which me, Mike and Matt would head out into the wilds of Kunene (at the very least to Purros but probably into Marienfluss) and live out under the stars doing manly things like belching, scratching ourselves and talking about girls. It was to be christened Operation Brokeback Monkey.

However as these things have a habit of doing the idea morphed from an extreme lads survivalist outing to a much more genteel co-ed trip to Epupa owing to time constraints and other considerations.

The roster now consisted of me, Mike, Cynthia, Julia, Ant, Matt, Lindsay and Brian. Six VSO, one Peace Corps and one non-volunteer with an actual job and everything.

By the time I got back from the bush Mike, Cynthia, Julia and Ant had arrived from Otjiwarongo (in Cynthia’s car as Mike’s was unwell and down in Windhoek being witchdoctored). Text reports came in from Matt who was also having car trouble that he was on his way but would be getting into Opuwo quite late.

My excellent new neighbour Erwin though away at VSO training had offered his house so nobody needed to camp in my front yard. We sat around with a beer or six swapping stories of daring do and Matt made it shortly after nine.

Mike, bless his cotton socks, believes in early starts to “maximise the day”. In the end we managed to compromise on going to the shops for supplies at 8.30am before shooting up to Epupa falls for the night.

At 8.30 (somewhat bleary eyed myself) we found that there was no bread or sausages or much of anything in the supermarket. Eventually we tracked down some meat in the butchery and even though there was no bread in the bakery either Brian used some sort of voodo magic and came out with two loaves.

So we set off in two cars – the Otjiwarongo contingent back in Cynthia’s condor (of the four-wheel drive variety with all mod cons) and four of us in my mighty condor.

Having just come back from a wet and wild few days in the bush I thought we may well find some difficult bits and flowing rivers on the way but the road was good as ever with just a few patches of mud and the rivers mere streams.

A few miles from Epupa there was a big rock in the road which I tried to have pass under the right-hand side of the car (thus missing the petrol tank on the left and the diff in the middle). I almost managed it but hit the rear wheel resulting in a massive bang, a quick jump and a very flat tyre.

The team sprung into action and we jacked (with the excellent bottle jacks that came with the car thanks to Alice and Mark), swapped the wheel and then inflated the new one (having sat in the back for close on a year it was totally down).

Off again and into Epupa just after 11.30.

Camp setup we wandered to the falls and messed around on the rocks taking pictures and (in some people’s cases) casting glances at either the nubile Himba ladies wandering around or the naked buffed up Himba guys washing in the pools dependent on preference.

The wind built up and up with some spray being blown in making us keep thinking it was raining. Thunderstorms rattled away in Angola.

Earlier on when setting up I had mercilessly taken the piss out of Matt’s tent that needed pegs to even stand up. I never use pegs here, just weighing my tent down with my various precious things.

With the wind building and building Karma taught me a lesson as my tent (and all my precious things) started rolling away over the campsite (luckily away from the river). I grabbed it before it went too far and as everyone else laughed and took pictures Matt generously came over, helped me right it and then lent me some pegs and even hammered them in for me.

There may be a lesson there somewhere. But probably not.

Back to the bar we had some drinks, played some cards and planned the trip most of the others will be taking to Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique at Christmas. I was able to stand on the periphery tutting and interjecting loads of random stuff they really ought to buy like extra spare wheels. I was told to get lost and stop interfering in my condescending way a few times but not physically barred from making input.

Dinner of sausages with Brai relish (whatever that may be) and then back to the bar. Most people played Boggle while me and Matt watched the rugby on the TV (big plasma screen at the Epupa bar which was a bit freaky). I can’t play Boggle owing to flashbacks to being forced to happily playing it with my mum who always thrashed me without mercy.

On the wildlife front there were several massive (four foot long) lizards that kept wandering around and were very interested in Mike’s tent. There was also a dog with a worm hanging out of its arse and wriggling around. Nice.

Sunday we drove back to Opuwo. About halfway home my rev counter and temperature gauge (and I discovered later some of the warning lights) stopped working but we had no more tyre dramas, just a near miss of going off the road to our deaths. Oh and after a bit of rain the roof started leaking on Brian as well.

Lunch at the Opuwo coffee shop and then everyone headed off home. Lindsay managed to steal my sleeping bag but as a consolation left me Matt’s tent.

In summary: a good time was had by all. By which I mean by me.

It turned out the gauge issue was just a fuse (well I hope it’s just the fuse not something bad causing the fuse to go). Of course you can’t get fuses in Opuwo so I’m just back from a 1000km (600 mile) round trip to get a 15A automotive fuse and have full dashboard functionality.

Now just to get the silicone sealant out and find the hole water is getting in. Then again I never sit in the back so it doesn’t affect me very much… But maybe I should pay attention to my Karma lesson before it’s too late!

Malaria Vector Control: Spraying Programme

November 23, 2010

Each year at this time the Ministry of Health and Social Services’ Environmental Health Division run a three-month long Malaria Vector Control program. This involves teams travelling all over the malarial areas of Namibia and spraying residences with DDT.

Sadly one of the drivers had a death in their family last week and had to travel to the funeral. In dire straights they searched high and low for a suitable replacement driver for a few days and when none could be found I was volunteered. My feeble attempts to get out of driving and camping deep in the bush during the rainy season came to nothing and with my work actually up-to-date and no training sessions on those days I had no excuses.

Ministry of Health and Social Services Muddy Malaria Control

Wednesday

With the car loaded up with chemicals, my camping gear and some of the team we headed out 14km on tar and then off into the bush for another 140km.

The rains have well and truly started now in Opuwo and the road which was fine last time I was along it (4 weeks ago) had changed from being fairly good dirt and gravel into long stretches of quagmire, gulleys filled with water and in some places had disappeared entirely.

Though the morning started out clear by the time we were well on our way to link up with the existing team the heavens opened with a torrential downpour.

I’ve done a few river and swamp crossings during my time here (and thank my lucky stars for the Swamp Driving Adventure Weekend experience in Caprivi – hi Vivien!) but that was different; either fords through a river with solid gravel (or even concrete) underneath or swampy pools you could pretty much judge the depth of. These however were raging torrents of brown water appearing seemingly from nowhere and just cutting through the road.

As well as the detritus flowing along them there was no clue as to the depth or what might lay on the bottom.

Needless to say I used a combination of pressing all the off-road buttons in the car, flooring it and screaming. We had a couple of close calls where we entered to the left of the road and by the time we had crossed and juddered up the other side were almost off the right-hand side.

The trusty Mazda did well though and with brown water flowing over the bonnet and bits of tree shooting past found enough traction to always pull us through. Only once did members of the team try and abandon ship by bailing out but were too paralysed by fear to work the windows.

Eventually we found the team in the field, packed up their camp and headed back (now with a trailer on for added drag through the rivers) to a new campsite nearer to Opuwo (the new site being near Mashamba’s Gap a place named after our erstwhile Control Health Inspector who once spent three days there waiting for waters to subside and get home).

Unfortunately the rains continued all afternoon. Although the spraying can theoretically be done in the rain people have to leave their houses for 30 minutes which they are understandably reluctant to do during heavy downpours. So we were forced to wait the rain out (strangely reminiscent of DoorCan days).

Rain Near Orumana

By the time the weather broke it was getting late and we just pitched camp and did some of the local area.

In the cool evening a fire was built and we sat around waffling to each other. In addition to two good friends of mine who it turned out were with us all the sprayers were a great bunch who made an effort to include me (and translate for me some of the dirtier jokes made in Otjiherero) with the standard questions as to how well I knew David Beckham and how many cows I had at home.

Thursday

Around eight we were off with my car filled with spraying gear and seven spraypeople (four on the back seat and two on the front passenger seat).

DDT Malaria Vector Control Spray Gear

With no rain after 6pm the night before and now a bright blue sky and hot sun the raging torrents had for the most part vanished leaving wide mud-filled ravines or massive standing puddles (more like lakes).

Again the Mazda even with my feckless driving managed to get us through these muddy abysses with the new added bonus that the oversized “knobbly” (technical term) wheels then threw great clods of mud up and over the car landing on the bonnet, roof or through the drivers window.

We were soon off the “main” road and bumping along goat tracks through the scrub finding small villages and dropping spraypeople off. On a few occasions even my trusty navigational team got lost or found our route blocked by a newly formed ditch that was impassable.

With the low-speed high-revs driving of getting into the foothills of some mountains and through swampy bits the car started to overheat. At one point we stopped in a village and you could hear the radiator boiling. It was just on the point of boiling over with some coolant coming out of the overflow but cooled off soon enough.

Investigating (and worried I had broken something in one of the more energetic obstacle crossings) it turned out there were a lot of seeds in the radiator, a common hazard. They had certainly been there since the dry season but at speed enough air was forced through to keep everything cool. We decided to crack on and just keep an eye on it.

Dropping off part of the team at a larger settlement we headed “to the other side of the mountain” up and over some steep passes and through lots of standing water.

It was then disaster struck.

We came to a shallow mud-filled depression about 20 feet or so across. Owing to some trees in the way I couldn’t just plough through with a fair speed in a straight line, we would have go through slowly and turn as we went. No problem there had been plenty of similar ones before.

Yet again engaging all the 4wd low range and diff-lock goodness we ploughed in, churning up mud in impressive fountains and sinking deeper until we stuck about halfway through with the wheels spinning but going nowhere. Tried a little bit of rocking and a higher gear for less torque without effect.

So standard procedure – back out and try again.

Into reverse and we went back a foot or so before coming to a stop again. Inch forwards and then backwards with plenty of power.

Yet again we were stuck and I kept the power on hoping the wheels would bite on something.

Suddenly they did and we jumped back but not in a straight line, the rear slewed to the right and just as I stamped on the brake a tree branch met the rear canopy window.

Smash.

“Fiddlesticks” (though I may have used a stronger word or words).

So not only were we still stuck but we now had a smashed rear canopy. The branch hadn’t actually come in, just tapped the rear window and shattered it.

Stuck in the Mud

Note the above picture actually shows us part way through the recovery – at the main stuck point we were axle-deep in the mud. Which was fun.

With nothing for it we clambered out to inspect the damage and try to find a way out. At this point I fell over in the mud much to the amusement of the other people in the car.

We had a plan though and some people were dispatched to find branches while I scraped as much mud as possible off the tyres to expose some of the tread.

With branches under the wheels and along the escape route with the car lined up correctly I floored it and after a sickening moment of wheels zipping around got up the side and out of the depression. Home free. We then broke off the rest of the glass from the canopy to avoid the sharp shards that were all around the window.

Muddy Leg After Falling Over

Onwards we continued to the settlements “behind the mountain” and sprayed lots of houses. We had to cross the same point another three times but this time picked a route we could go at straight and with enough speed.

Eventually finished there we ground back through the foothills to recover the people dropped off at the large settlement and make our way back.

They were nowhere to be found.

Communication with the people living there gave a number of different versions on where they had gone and we spent quite a while circling around trying to find them. In the end some guys at a shebeen said the other car had picked them up and been last seen heading out to the area we had been in.

We waited on the road and talked to a few locals but without any more positive sightings. The idea to go and look for them in the bush was dropped as it was now getting dark and in the myriad of roads we could pass each other and not know it.

Luckily the other car turned up and did indeed have our spray people onboard. They had gone to look for us thinking the worst with our overheating problem.

Though we were fine and back out it was great of the other car to go looking to rescue us in those conditions.

On the way back we came upon a (new) massive but slow-moving river (no doubt the run off from the hills we’d been up on during the day). Crossing this was a bit harrowing as the bottom suddenly fell away and the surface level was up to our windows – luckily momentum, a bow wave (to keep the water below the air intake) and plenty of power in low-range kept the engine going and we made it out the other side before it quit on us.

A few spluttering restarts and then a minute or so revving wildly to dry it out and all was well again.

Back to camp for tea and medals.

Friday

Dismantled the camp and packed everything up into both cars and the trailer. The weather was still on our side with lovely blue skies and no rain.

The trailer was held together and closed with bits of wire which were none to clever and with our back window out I drove as convoy leader so the car behind could pull us over when something snapped and stuff was in danger of coming out.

When the trailer needed re-closing everyone piled on top to keep the lid down so the wire could be wrapped tightly on the catch.

Malaria Vector Control Convoy Closing Trailer Lid

We did some more large settlements and then with business concluded for the week came back to Opuwo through the mud and rivers then eventually back on the tar road (yippee!) in time to unload and for me to present myself at the Regional Office with head held in shame and own up to the canopy.

The logistics staff took one look at me, mud-caked and with a haunted 1000 yard stare and said “Good God, what happened?”.

They were really good about the damage saying “these things happen in the rains”, assuring me the Malaria team had already damaged three vehicles more seriously and that the replacement canopy would be quite cheap. I think as usual they were amazed with my poor driving skills we had made it back at all.

Got home to find some friends had arrived for our planned weekend away at Epupa and after a hot shower and a cold beer felt almost quarter human again.

Lessons Learnt

  • ARRRRGH! The mud! The water! The raging brown torrents of filth! NEVER AGAIN.
  • My Caprivi adventure in the floods and in the swampy gamepark though unsuccessful on the elephant front was a vital learning experience
  • Those Malaria Control Teams; boy they work hard and in terrible conditions
  • The Mazda; she good
  • If you can go around an obstacle then do but if you can’t then pray to Zeus and hang on
  • They’re really not joking about this rainy season treacherous travel business. No Siree

Party in Osh

November 8, 2010

This weekend was Matt’s, erm, 21st (?) birthday in Oshakati and most of the northern VSO volunteers with a fair smattering of Peace Corps descended on the big city.

After arriving in dribs and drabs Friday night was a braii (BBQ) with people still up and around when I went off to my tent around 2 (Matt went to bed around 8.30 it’s worth noting).

On Saturday there was some leisurely shopping and lazing by the pool in the morning. Me and John then popped over with Joel to the Oshakati library to have a look at their computer problems.

Using my ace skills I diagnosed a “broken switch”. We tried power-cycling it without luck. In the end, having proved this conclusively as the cause of the fault (and rewired the network to provide internet to two terminals), John fixed it through the laying on of hands (though he actually says when he shook it he could hear the internets rattling around loose inside and just rolled them around until they were pointing the right way).

Switch fixed and a few reconfigurations on the server and all was well in the world of Oshakati library. We left triumphantly with the librarian grinning ear-to-ear and loading facebook.

For both me and John this (fixing anything) was a rare occurrence so we were in jolly spirits.

We then went to some lodge/pub and watched the rugby with England versus New Zealand. As Matt’s a Kiwi he was on the side of the enemy. The sadly victorious enemy.

Pizza saturday night (Oshakati is great) in a big group, back to Matt’s and then a final night camping in his garden.

Sunday as the last survivors we hung around annoying Matt by walking on the floors he was up and bleaching clean at 7.30am (come on man!) and generally getting in his way. Post lunch and having recollected Erwin who had abandoned us Saturday night for Ondangwa we came home. Found Emily’s homestead, dropped her off and found our way back to Outapi in the daylight without the need for the neverending drama that happened last time.

Even made it back to Opuwo in daylight. Which was nice.

Conversational Highlights

In addition to many other deep discussions on things such as the meaning of life, the essence of spirit, the definition of cognition and determination versus free will I remember discussing:

  • The Crickets. It turns out Emily is Queen of the Crickets and, we deduced, working to provide them with nuclear arms. Which other insect race we should in turn give thermonuclear weapons to as a counter-balance was hotly debated. We almost went with the cockroaches until realised they would turn against us. Butterflies are the front runner now but we are still unconvinced of their focus on the mission.
  • Stripmonks. Thanks to a misunderstanding in the car the idea of Stripmonks was born. This is genius. Some of us thought it referred to the Chipmonks after hours and others to Benedictine holy fathers grinding away. Either way a dead-cert winner and something we should work on.
  • VSO. Yes some brief passing mention was made of the massive VSO shake-up going on. Most people knew about it (from Peace Corps gossip) at least a day before the email from VSO. Opinions were pretty unanimous. Maybe more on this another time.
  • The Trees. They’re out to get us. Seriously. Be afraid. Though you don’t need to run, or even walk, just shuffle away an inch or so a day and you are probably safe.

Dilemma

I am also now in a bit of a dilemma over Christmas. A group are heading to Mozambique and Malawi for three weeks of fun and frollicks. I’d been invited on this ages ago but said no at the time and since made plans for Christmas at Swakopmund (I know, woo me).

However hearing to them making plans and talking of the wonders ahead I found my resolve and all sense failing me. Arr. Practically it would be near impossible and I know that.

But still, I am now looking at maps and thinking “well, I maybe just could…”. Decision to be made this week.

Choices, choices, choices. Sensible and known or crazy, foolish, expensive, certainly doomed mapcap adventure?

Etosha Weekend

October 12, 2010

Last weekend I set off with a group of Peace Corps friends (John, Emily, Ann and Patty) to the Etosha National Game park for fun and frollicks.

I took Friday off mainly to clean out the car (I even washed it, sort of) and then set off with John and Ann to Outapi and Emily’s homestead (she lives with an Otjiwambo family deep in the bush). We met her “host family” who were very friendly (even to me), ate some traditional food, drank a little Tafel and chatted the night away.

Her homestead is in the middle of nowhere (makes Opuwo look like a city) with no electric lights for a few kilos around (which comes in handy later on).

In the morning I was up at 6.30 and feeling very tired. I’m sure the mass of empty bottles I had to wade through outside my tent had nothing to do with it. Soon we were on the road (well, the track) then onto the main road and picked up Patty near Outapi.

Stocked up on supplies in Oshakati and headed a few hundred km to the north gate for the park. Separate to any camping fees you pay a park entrance which comes in 24-hour blocks. Though we were only staying the one night because it was only 11.30am when we entered (and we get the local Namibian resident rate N$30 about £3 rather than N$80) we went mad and bought a 48 hour pass so we could leave at our leisure on Sunday.

After finding nothing as usual at the Stinkwater hole (will I never learn not to love that name enough to drive and find… nothing) the next waterhole provided some giraffes and bock various.

Etosha Waterhole Scene

Onwards through Namatoni for refreshments and ice we started hitting the big concentration of waterholes along the southern end. Eletastic with big groups standing around. Naturally I got a few bottom shots.

Elephants at Etosha

The rest of the day we meandered around, seeing more eles, giraffe and bock-various. Having set our tents up at Hallali we ventured out onto the pan (vast expansive salt pan in the middle of the park) and then retired to the campsite for Emily’s sausage brochens with mayo and other stuff. Most good.

After sunset we got to the waterhole (which is lit at night) in time to see a family of Rhino wandering about which vindicated my decision we should stay in Hallali rather than the more popular Oka-whatsit. Victory was mine.

Rhino Family at Hallali Waterhole Etosha

After the Rhino had wandered off we waited, and waited, and waited. Eventually after nothing else appeared I headed off to bed.

In the morning I was up around 6 to see the sunrise at the waterhole and the inevitable animal carnival. There was nothing. After a while I went back to bed for a nap.

We took full advantage of the 48-hour pass lack of pressure by lazing around, napping, showering (wonderful as I hadn’t had water in Opuwo for the previous two days) and bickering.

Camp dismantled and loaded up with cool drink, John was dispatched into the reception to find out where the lions were. This time round in Africa I have seen no lions. This was my third trip to Etosha and I even went to Chobe in Botswana earlier in the year. No lions.

Of course everyone else finds endless lions. New VSO intake go to Etosha, wham, 30 lions juggling flaming clubs. Driver goes to Kamanjab early in the morning, bam, lions crossing the road near Werda. But so far I was the anti-lion.

However all that was set to change and following the directions of the staff we drove out to a waterhole near the pan to find… LIONS. For a moment we weren’t sure, there had been so many false sightings of lionesque bushes and a hyena on the road looking cunningly lionly but there they finally were – a pride of six at least.

Lion Pride at Etosha

Lion at Etosha

We sat and watched the lions for a loooong time. It was excellent. At one point a massive herd (several hundred) of Springbock came toward the water and we waited with bated breath for some lion-on-bock action. Sadly they paused and even though a solitary bock (we named him Brave Bob though I think maybe Blind Bob might be nearer the truth) kept coming he suddenly stopped, probably after he saw the bloody lions.

The lions had their eyes locked onto the herd but sadly didn’t chase down a free lunch.

Eventually we decided that the lions weren’t going to do anything other than laze in the sun (and who can blame them?) so bid adieu. On the way out we had some more Ele action and then another apparently solitary lion at the very last waterhole before the gate.

Stopping in Oshakati I was introduced to the wonders of SOS pizza which was fantabulastic. We then dropped Patty off at her homestead gate and managed to find our way back to the main road.

Emily’s homestead, easy enough to find in the daytime if not a bit remote, turned out to be near impossible to find at night (for us palefaced devils anyway). We spent an hour or so circling round dirt tracks which all looked alike. Eventually Emily managed to get through to her Host Mother who (and this is where we thank the gods for the lack of electric light out there) could see our headlights and proceeded to talk us in. Even with this we still struggled and in the end were only rescued by two of her host sisters walking out and flashing torches. Victory.

Because someone was locked out of John’s house, me having to work the next day and foolish bravado we decided to get back on the main road and go to Opuwo that night rather than staying over. We were confident we could at the very least find our way back, especially with the instructions we now had.

No.

Instead we ended up even more lost in the bush. Finally using a combination of my GPS (though obviously none of the tracks are on it) and the notoriously useless dashboard compass we drove by-bearing cross country and after only a moderate amount of sobbing and recrimination FOUND A MAJOR GRAVEL ROAD.

After that it was simple to get into Outapi and pick up the main road arriving back to Opuwo in one piece around 1.30am.

So in summary a successful weekend with much fun and japes. AND LIONS OF COURSE! No longer the anti-lion. I just hope my lion-powers now don’t make them come and visit me at home.

Heroes Acre and THE DOOM BUG OF OUTJO

September 28, 2010

Some pictures to fill the void while I scratch my head and try to think of something to blog…

Heroes Acre

Just outside Windhoek is the Heroes Acre – a massive monument to the Heroes of the Liberation Struggle.

Statue at Heroes Acre, Windhoek, Namibia

Towards the top is a massive spire and a statue of the Founding Father of Namibia Dr. Sam Nujoma who was the leader of SWAPO and the first president of the independent republic.

The text reads: Glory to the fallen Heroes and Heroines of the motherland Namibia!

Statue at Heroes Acre, Windhoek, Namibia in Shadow

Doom Bug of Outjo

A while ago I spent a weekend camping in Outjo and Waterberg with two VSO colleagues of mine. On the first night (OppiKlippe near Outjo) I completely failed to make fire as I had forgotten firelighters and my bushman skills were sadly lacking.

I tried do-it-yourself firelighters with Clutch Cleaning Fluid and wood and even resorted to petrol. Try, try, try again and then fail. Of course the very next time I was in the same predicament, without such a supportive audience, I created a massive blaze with nothing but dried grass and skill. Oh well.

Defeated on the fire front we popped into Outjo to get some food and came back to our campsite. Shortly through the gate on our return a kudu jumped out in front of us and as we were watching it there was an almighty BANG as something hit the car. Something big.

It was some sort of massive devil bug. Easily the size of a golf ball it had flown full pelt into the windscreen, knocked itself senseless and was now on the bonnet.

The thing was enormous. And clawing away at the air with one of its many sets of clawlike-things.

TERRIFYING. I haven’t seen anything that big capable of flight and that scary ever.

So here’s a picture – the windscreen wipers can be seen for scale. Try not to loose sleep over it. Unless you’re living in sub-Saharan Africa of course where I’m now convinced these things rule the night killing humans at will.

Massive bug that hit the car at OppiKlippe, Outjo, Namibia

What the hell! I mean; WHAT THE HELL. And I only am half-convinced the red-eye is from the camera flash.

Be afraid…

Serra Cafema: The Long Trek

September 3, 2010

Back in late 2009 we had an serious outbreak of Measles in the Kunene Region, for a while we were even featuring on the WHO website. As you might expect the Government and specifically the Ministry of Health and Social Services swung into action throwing money and resources at the problem which thankfully was resolved in the end.

The response effort was massive, involved the Namibian Defence Force, various ministerial visits and more than a few column inches in the national press.

During this time it was all hands to the pumps in the Kunene Region and even the lowliest smelliest IT Advisor was roped in. This then is the story of a small part of the battle to defeat Measles; the Great Trek to Serra Cafema.

The Call

In a week in which the massive special immunization drive was already in progress a report came into the Ministry of Health from a far-flung outpost called Serra Cafema, far up in the North West of Namibia in the Namib Desert and sandwiched between mountain ranges and the Kunene River with Angola on the far side.

The lodge had reported, via satellite phone to their head office, a number of deaths related to Measles in the area and requested assistance from the Ministry of Health. As most of the people in the office were already out with the immunization drive a crack team of a misfit (the IT Advisor) and health professionals was hastily assembled and agreed to load up and attempt to go and get through to Serra Cafema, find out what was happening and immunize as many children as possible.

The Team

  • Driver – IT Specialist: Dave (me!)
  • Nurse – Senior Health Program Administrator for Health Information Systems: Michael
  • Environmental Health – Opuwo District EH Officer: Barbara
  • Social Mobilization – Kunene Regional Information and Education Coordinator: Anika

Preperations

First off we had to find a car and see if we physically could carry enough fuel to get through. The transport team found us a Nissan Hardbody 4×4, one of the vehicles with a good if not Landcruiser-quality reputation and from the IEC stores we managed to get three 20-liter fuel cans. Quick expert calculations involving the back of an envelope, tutting and cussing revealed that it would probably be enough.

In addition to our camping equipment, food and fuel we would be taking a large chest of immunization supplies, mosquito nets and water purification kits (not to miss the opportunity to distribute these to an area the MoHSS rarely reaches).

We also filled up several 10-litre plastic water containers. These promptly leaked all over the back soaking luggage and people before dripping out of the drain holes.

I Can’t Tell You Not To Go. But…

At this point we had a rough idea of the place we were going. We had also heard a few horror stories from the transport office and not least from Barbara who it turns out was once stranded for more than two days along the route we would have to take in part.

Lacking a map or any sort of a clue we headed to the police station where the Opuwo District Commander brought us into his office to offer assistance.

The verdict it seemed was not good; the roads were bad, the entire place is isolated, deep sand, shifting dunes, gut-wrenchingly steep mountain passes and almost certain doom.

He got out a photo album of the most recent police trip to the area – they went in a convoy of seven vehicles. One of the vehicles was dedicated for the mechanics alone and carried the generators, compressors and airbags required to traverse the terrain. The photos were mainly of cars suck axle deep in sand and bemused looking coppers standing around the scratching their heads.

But it was no good – we had to go we were after all a handpicked crack Ministry of Health team on vital work.

“Well” he said, “maybe if you have a really strong car”. We pointed to our Nissan. He didn’t seem impressed.

“Well” he then said, “it really all depends on the skill of your driver”. All eyes turned to me. Well Sheeeeeeeeet.

“Well” he said finally, “I can’t tell you not to go, but… I would strongly advise against it”.

In the end we agreed that we would stop at the Orupembe police station and take their advice before going cross-desert. We would turn back if they said it was impassable and if we carried on they would know our route and radio it back to Opuwo. At such time as we made it back out of the middle-of-nowhere they could also radio back our safe return. If nothing was heard a search party could then be dispatched (I think to bury the bodies and bring the car back).

As soon as I heard we would be radioing through updates I tried to convince everyone we would need a codename. I suggested the likes of Operation Brokeback, Operation Certain Death or Operation Megadeath. Sadly nobody seemed as up for this as me. It didn’t stop me referring to us by various Operation monikers from that point on.

We were also able to get a map from him which we used for the remainder of the journey.

Navigation Map into Hartmann Valley

Our expertly drawn map of the route

This was the map. We were going from the bottom-right (Opuwo) to the top left. Along the roads clearly marked – in pen.

Orupembe

And so we set off triumphantly, water leaks trailing behind, towards Kaoko Otavi and Orupembe.

Things went well for the first ten minutes or so until frantic waving from the back stopped us and Anika jumped out and promptly threw up. One of the fuel cans had a misfitting top (I had noticed this when filling but expertly wedged it closed with a plastic bag and brute force) and was filling the back of the bakkie with petrol fumes (sadly we only had a single cab vehicle so passengers rode in the back with the luggage, water and fuel).

After a brief conflab she swapped places to sit in the front with me so Michael and Barbara went in the back with windows open for full ventilation.

Eventually after going over umpteen hills and through endless dry riverbeds we reached Orupembe. Not so much a town as two huts, a small shop (also a hut) and a massive police station (explained as they also live there not by the massive amount of criminal activity).

We consulted with our friends in blue who were very helpful besides constantly asking with some amazement if we were “really going there, in that, on your own“. They confirmed there were two routes – the long way through the desert or the less-long-way (I don’t want to call it short) through the mountain passes to Rooi Drum which I naively assumed was a funnily named town.

We decided that the mountain passes would be better – avoiding the sandy stuff for as long as possible and offering a better chance that we wouldn’t run out of fuel and die of thirst in the middle of the desert.

So in good cheer we set off toward Rooi Drum looking to find somewhere to spend the night. Apparently there was a place called Marble Camp just before the passes which would be a good bet. It was now getting dark and we picked our way out of Orupembe and into the hills. At one point the road split and I was going to take the right-hand fork when Anika pointed out the danger blasting area sign so we took the other way.


No Entry Blasting Area

No Entry Blasting Area

We pressed on and presently came into Marble Camp which was offering camping with hot water and all the other good stuff for N$50 (about 4 pounds) per person. Barbara and Michael stressed to them we were MoHSS people on important immunization missions and places normally let us stay for free but the owner was away and the staff couldn’t do that.

For myself I would have happily paid the N$50 but it was decided we should head off to an abandoned IRDNC camp a few km away. So we headed back and into the blasting area. Eventually we found this ghost camp in the middle of the blasting area and with some kerfuffle over the Ministry tent that lacked working zips bedded down for the night.

Rooi Drum

At first light we were up and packed ready to commence the crossing of the passes to get to the desert after which the crossing of the desert would commence.

Having found our way out of the blasting zone I said to Michael “we must hit the main track soon” as the track we were on was little more than a goat path. “No, this is it” was his reply. Ah.

Slowly and not-so-surely we climbed up through the hills feeling our way through loose rocks and around boulders standing in the middle of the track. Eventually we came across a Y-junction and, wonder of wonders, another vehicle with a Himba family sitting around enjoying a picnic. They confirmed we were on the right track for Rooi Drum. In return we handed them mozzie nets and water treatment kits. Their kids were either too young or already immunized.


Mobile Clinic and Net Distribution

Mobile Health Center

Eventually having climbed up in low range we came to the top of the first bit of the pass and were faced with a series of very steep twisty descents and angular ascents. A few times we were forced to stop entirely and walk ahead, surveying the route and planning mad left-then-right wheel wrenching. Only once did I get stuck on a rock and then the mighty Nissan pulled itself back off with no damage.

Amazingly and to everyone’s surprise (not least of which mine) we actually made it through. Intact. And with most of our bowels still under control.

As the track got better and the inclines gentler we emerged from the hills into the edge of the desert and Rooi Drum. Rooi Drum is Afrikans for Red Drum. I did think this was a funny name for a town. Except it isn’t. It’s literally a drum, a red one, in the middle of nowhere.


Rooi Drum / Red Drum Namibia

Rooi Drum

Next to the fabled drum itself is a stone used as a plaque upon which people write their details. It turns out this is actually the remote bit of a remote tourist trail serious off-roaders do. Of course where they were turning back at this point or maybe going straight on into Marienfluss we were turning left and heading into the desert.


Rooi Drum / Red Drum Names of the Dead

Names at Rooi Drum

There were some guys at Red Drum who had been out hunting Springbok and other game for meat and also to control the numbers so we were met with carcasses hanging from trees when we arrived which was a bit surreal and gave the place a Deliverance vibe.

The Next Drums

From Rooi Drum we headed to Blue Drum which was, as I now had learned to expect, a blue drum. This one featured a satellite phone for some bizzare reason. Of course a sign explained the phone didn’t work for one reason or another.

Blue drum had just three or four names scrawled on rocks at the base.


Blue Drum, Kunene

Blue Drum

From there we entered the desert proper and at Orange Drum stopped heading West, turning North for the great push up to Serra Cafema. There were no names at Orange drum.

North Ever North

The Namib desert is beautiful and I would say no more so (and I have seen it in most places) than the far North-West. Here great mountains give way to hilly dunes and tussocks of grass with the occasional scrub tree. It is stunningly desolate and yet still teeming with life this far inland.

We headed north tracking along the edge of the desert through valleys and endless numbers of dry river beds which for two days a year would spill out into the sea which was still another few hundred kilometers west.

Though meeting patches of deep sand we managed to get through using momentum, power and luck. Above all I wanted to avoid “airing down” the tyres (a curious turn of phrase meaning letting some air out). This was because all we had to air them back up again was a crappy handpump which didn’t work at the best of times.

Eventually many hours into crossing endless expanses of nothingless (which really I can’t adequately describe save to say that Michael and Barbara who are actual Namibians were awed by the immense wonder) we were climbing up the side of a valley when the inevitable happened and we got stuck.

Michael suggested we air down. I countered by showing the pump. So we tried to find another way.

By digging under the car, making mats of grass and pushing we managed to cover the next kilometer or so in an hour of sweaty sunbaked hell.


Stuck in Deep Sand in the Namib

B******s

Above you see Operation Drunken Monkey stuck in the sand. This was actually one of our shallower stickings. Barbara is energetically digging out underneath while the rest of us look on.

Finally we managed to get some good (ish) traction and I simply couldn’t stop so had to power on 500m or so leaving my pushing team behind. On what I thought was firmer ground I stopped. And stuck solid. How they laughed once they had finished walking up.

Sadly on finally cresting the hill the other side of which I dreamed of tarmac or maybe just firmer sand the soft stuff stretched out in front of us. I still refused to compromise on the tyres and we continued to start-stop-dig-matt-push-start-repeat. Fun.

Suddenly along the road came the first vehicle and people we had seen for nearly 12 hours. It was a raised seating Safari style Land Rover from…. the Serra Cafema lodge. We were not only on the right road (which had been in some doubt) but had only a few kilometers to go.

The Land Rover was taking some of the lodge guests down the valley to the lodges’ own airstrip. The contrast between us, plastered with sweat and namib sand driven ever so slightly mad in the sun and these clean ultra-rich tourists was stark. Anika says one of them waved though I am pretty such they looked on in horror and disgust while holding scented hankies to their noses.

The driver also told us the deep sand was pretty constant from here on in and we should air down our tyres. He had a plane to catch so couldn’t hang around but promised he would tow us up if we were still stuck when he returned.

With a heavy heart and a foreboding of the reinflation to come we aired down the tyres and…. immediately were crusing through the sand like it was tarmac.

Another few kilometers of sandy hills and we finally came across civilisation – a rough Himba homestead perched on a dune in the middle of nowhere. Hardly had we stopped to distribute nets and water kits as well as find kids to stab with syringes than another Land Rover and a Quad Bike turned up from the lodge having been alerted to the approach (and stuckness) of Operation Platonic Penguin and come to rescue us. As we had rescued ourselves (get in) the Land Rover headed off but the guy and Quad Bike waited for us to finish in that homestead and show us the way to the lodge.

Sheer Cliff

We followed the quad bike for a good few kilometers up and over severe dunes and steep sandy hills until he stopped and looped back to us.

“Be careful in the next bit, it’s quite steep” he said and motored off.

Steep? The next bit? Bloody hell – what was the bit we’ve just been doing?

Then came the cliff. Seriously. The sand just stopped and disappeared downwards. The quad bike just vanished over the precipice (there is no way I would have driven over it if not following the bike). I waited until he was probably clear, made a quick prayer to any listening god, steeled my bowels and – counterintuitively – drove over the sheer bloody drop.

In low range first gear we basically fell down the side of the dune. The sand free-falling alongside just kept pace with us. Had I not lost the power of speech through fear I would have screamed out loud. In fact I think I might, almost a year later, still be screaming inside.

200+ feet of near-vertical descent later we reached the bottom to find Mr Quad Bike grinning at my pale face.

We then descended into the Kunene River valley proper – rocky passes of 45 degrees or so (seemed like nothing after the CLIFF OF DEATH).

Suddenly we caught a glimpse of the river – a narrow ribbon of lush green cutting through the empty orange desert.

Kunene River Valley from Above

Before long we were down on the floor plain and heading into the lodge.

Ice Cold in Alex

Parking up in the lodge carpark (for employees only – nobody drives there, they fly in) we shambled over the bridge to reception.

Two days hard on the road through the desert and hours digging sand by hand we stepped into another world. Standing there, gummed up with sand ingrained to our stubble (and that is just the ladies), a liveried waiter handed us ice-cold apple juice and cold wet towels to wash our faces.

A minute later and we were through in the bar meeting the manager who, with correct priorities, asked us if we wanted a drink.

“Tafel lager” I croaked and by some magic it appeared in front of me. Cold. Condensation dripping down the side. Perfect. Beautiful.

It was my ultimate Ice Cold in Alex moment.

Operation Drugged Dragon had arrived.

The Mission

Over a sumptuous meal we met with the lodge manager who had requested us. It turned out (thank goodness) that the 10 deaths were more hearsay than anyone local and if they had happened at all it was on the Angolan side of the border.

The mission therefore of Operation Perturbed Parrot was to immunize as many local kids as possible and distribute our nets and water kits.

The Lodge

It’s worth me just mentioning the lodge here. Serra Cafema (named for the mountains on the other side of the river) is part of the Namibia Wilderness Lodges who operate various plush lodges all over Southern Africa.

It costs about US$1000 (600 pounds) per person per night for the lodge only and guests exclusively fly in. On the companies dedicated small airline.

In the months before our visit Microsoft founder Paul Allen had been staying as well as various other movers and shakers. The lodge is simply plushness itself – everything is built to perfection and (unsurprisingly) the staff are amazingly friendly, helpful and able to converse in many different languages.

In addition to catering to, let’s be honest, very well off tourists part of the agreement is the lodge is involved with the (sparse) local population. They operate a border crossing service by boat and know all the local families well. In such a remote spot everyone has to stick together I suppose.

Rather wonderfully, equipped as we were for another night of hard living, we were put up for the night in the family suite – two rooms with twin beds. For free I hasten to add as I don’t think the Ministry would have signed our expense claims.

The Beds at Serra Cafema

The Balcony for OUR ROOM at Serra Cafema

Simply; it was pretty damn plush and pretty damn swanky. Ever find yourself as a rich holidayer you should give it a look.

But fly in. Seriously.

Operation Blind Badger Begins Proper

Fortified, rested, washed and invigorated we headed out. To Angola.

It turns out the Himba locals are pretty transient and cross between Namibia and Angola regularly. The manager had heard that the main local Himba family were at their Angolan homestead.

So we (some of us – those allowed into Angola) jumped into the boat with a couple of lodge staff and cruised down the Kunene River to find them. A wonderful small boat ride later I jumped off the boat and scrambled up a steep bank to invade Angola! Sadly it was already claimed else I would have added another territory for Her Majesty.

Hiking through scrub on the Angolan side (sadly pretty similar to the Namibian side) we found a homestead. Abandoned. Not a person in sight.

We tracked our footprints back to the boat and scrambled back down the bank. Retreating from Angola after half an hour having immunized zero children – Operation Mental Mongoose was not going well.

Right Chaps - Back to Namibia

To Business

Back in Namibia we saddled up in one of the lodge Land Rovers and went out hunting for Himba children to immunize. Fortunately we had more luck this time and got round all the local homesteads with even enough time to pop up a quick mountain and admire the view.

Kunene River Valley View from Above

Basically we would turn up, greet the people who would converge, talk to the adults, hand out nets and water kits and then make the children cry by stabbing them with syringes. Not me but the trained health professionals that is.

Kids at a Homestead

Preparing...

Success! Stabbing Children with Syringes

This was my first experience with immunizations in the field. The mothers would usually avert the kids eyes (shown above) at the point of injection. The first couple would always go fine until one cried. At this point all the waiting children would (quite understandably) get upset while those that had already been done would walk around looking pleased with themselves and winding the others up as to how much it would hurt.

On a serious note though these children (with few exceptions) had none of their basic immunizations and wouldn’t have even had measles if we hadn’t come all that way on the back of a crisis. It’s easy to see how diseases can spread easily out here with semi-nomadic people and no easy access to basic primary healthcare.

Barbara Leaps into Action


Pretty Fly Little Kid at a Homestead

Pretty Cool Little Kid at a Homestead

Operation Paralytic Penguin a Success

Thanks to the local knowledge of the lodge manager we completed the immunizations in record time and returned back to the lodge for a few more cold beers overlooking the river and a sumptuous dinner (again on the house).

We decided to get off early in the morning and try and get back to Opuwo in a single day, stopping at any other homesteads we found on the way.

Calculations showed we should be able to get back to Opuwo with 20 litres of fuel to spare and the lodge manager had shown me the best way to get through the dunes and back up out of the valley (going back up the cliff of death not being an option even for such hardy souls as us).

Tired but happy and content we went to bed ready for an early start.

Homeward Bound

In the morning we were up and off driving through (“charging” is I believe the correct term) dunes, up rocky passes and up and out of the river valley back into the Namib.

Homeward Bound


Barbara Wandering Off (I think she was sick of us)

With our now “aired down” tyres we had no problem getting back through the deep sand and back down through the desert making it back to Orange Drum far faster than we had taken going (hours spent digging sand didn’t help).

It was here we dug out the handpump of doom and in shifts attempted to reinflate the tyres. The pump is old, knackered and has a habit of loosing the seal so you will be pumping hard once, twice and then as you go to push down with all your might there will be no resistance and you’ll almost break something slamming down. This would then necessitate a pump disassembly and realignment. It was hellish and honestly I preferred digging sand by hand. In the end we got enough pressure to continue to decided to just make for Opuwo and a proper compressor.

Wrong Turn

From Orange Drum the plan was to retrace our route – Blue Drum, Red Drum, Mountain Pass, Marble Site and Orupembe. I was both nervous and looking forward to going back through the Red Drum pass the other way (this time the really difficult sections would be uphill and harder).

However it wasn’t to be as a few km after orange drum we came upon yet another parting of the ways and, having considered the options, took the right-hand fork. The wrong fork.

After another few hours had passed and Blue Drum was nowhere to be seen it became clear we were lost.

I didn’t want to worry anyone but thought this was potentially a bit perilous. We didn’t really have enough fuel to turn round and go back to the junction, get through and make it back to Opuwo and if a rescue party was dispatched we had left instructions at the lodge we would be heading back the old Orange-Blue-Red route.

A few times I was asked as the driver if I “recognised anything”. Well yes I did. Everything. Sand, sand, sand and more bloody sand crossing dried up rivers. Pretty much like featureless desert.

Though becoming slightly concerned I was pretty certain we had just managed to come back the “long route” we had chosen not to take going – the desert stretched away on our right and the mountains we should have been driving over were to our left. If we kept straight on (south) then we should hit civilisation eventually. Shouldn’t we?

At this point for the first time I dug out my GPS. This isn’t some sort of fancy off-road GPS or even a hiking GPS – it’s a bluetooth one that links to my phone and (though it thought we were in the middle of nowhere navigation wise) did give us a longitude and latitude.

This we plotted on my map of Namibia (which had grids shown). From that we extrapolated our position on a map of Kunene we had and from relative position on that we plotted ourselves on the hand-augmented map we were using. Still north of Orupembe and on the edge of the desert heading south. So all kind of well.

Further still and we came to a valley with – heavens above – buildings on the other side. Down one side and up the other and, wait, yes, it couldn’t be but it was; the Orupembe Police station!

I had no alternative but to jump out and do my “We Made it to Orupembe Alive” dance.

Happy happy days.

We were again warmly welcomed by the police who got on the radio to HQ and let them know the good news – Operation Shambolic Retreat had made it through with not a single death.

News of Our Return is Transmitted to Opuwo HQ

Phase the Second

Happy to have made it back to Orupembe we were eagerly anticipating the journey back home to Opuwo when a complication arose.

The police had reports of several severely ill people (adults with measles) in the Marienfluss valley who needed collected and brought to the Opuwo hospital pretty sharpish. There is no way our ambulance could even get 10% of the way there, the police only had an open bakkie and we were the only Ministry of Health team for many miles around.

So we were asked could we go back down through Red Drum, up the Marienfluss valley and collect the patients.

Who did they think they were asking? We were the team who had successfully carried out Operation Certain Lonely Death: of course we could. Or rather we could once we had unloaded the car and filled up more fuel from the police stores.

Leaving Anika and Barbara behind to dispatch nets and water kits to the local populis me (big lad), Michael (also big lad) and the police sergeant (also a big lad) crammed into the front bench seat of the Nissan and headed back once again to Red Drum. Owing to the seating arrangement and the four-wheel drive controls I got to know our police friend pretty intimately. Very intimately.

This time a seasoned pass professional we reached Red Drum easily and stayed heading North up into Marienfluss. Is the Hartmann valley was amazing and beyond my skills to describe so was Marienfluss. The sun was westering and the entire place seemed to glow in golden light.

Eventually we found our patients who were very glad to see us and loaded up. Michael wasn’t sure if he had been immunised for measles the the policeman was pretty certain he hadn’t so I was the only person who dared go near our precious cargo.

Back to the south and I did get to drive through the Red Drum pass the “hard way”. This time in twilight. Halfway through we found a Ministry of the Environment bakkie stranded on some rocks and were going slow enough in first gear low range to wind down the window and apologise we couldn’t help him but were on a medical emergency and would try and send someone back (we later heard he had been rescued ok).

Once again in Orupembe and we met back up with our missing team members. In our absence the roadkill Springbock the police were in the process of butchering as we left had been cooked and some kept back for us – it was rather tasty.

Home James Home

As arranged we now headed back to Opuwo in loose convoy with the police bakkie carrying our luggage and Barbara. Anika jumped on the bench seat with us in place of the policeman and there was a little more breathing room (and luckily no need to operate the four-wheel drive controls).

We made it back through the night with no dramas, crossing the plains west of Kaoko Otavi abreast of each other like ships. I had to keep reminding myself I wasn’t in a ship and at any moment a tree could appear from nowhere.

Back in Opuwo we delivered our patients to their much needed medical care at about 3am and shook hands, standing around stoically like heroes. Not that anyone else noticed.

Home and bed beckoned.

The Aftermath

Back in the office people were pleased yet surprised to see us. We ended up running a day late and they had assumed, with good reason, we were stranded in the middle of the desert somewhere fighting off desert coyotes and hoping to be rescued.

We have all lived up our experiences and when talking about the measles campaign with someone weeks later they said “I heard one team went all the way up Hartmann valley, wow”. “Yes” I was able to say, “that was some kind of crazy team”.

Of course we had been a tiny tiny part in the massive measles campaign and two days later I was off again living in the bush for a week at Etanga, driving over mountains and hunting down unsuspecting small children that we would then make cry.

Random Pictures

A Map We Found AFTER THE EVENT Showing The Area

Nothingness

Kunene River from Above

Another View of the Kunene River Valley

Lessons Learnt

  1. Naming your venture Operation Certain Slow and Painful Death doesn’t inspire confidence
  2. Though I was right to plan ahead and decide in what order I was going to eat my fellow team members it was probably wrong of me to tell them
  3. Make sure your water containers are watertight
  4. There is nothing quite like a cold Tafel after a long stuggle under the african sun in the desert
  5. The Himbas that live up there are seriously tough hombres
  6. Nissan Hardbodies are hardcore vehicles

Another Account

I am writing this almost a year after the events and in my usual way have glossed over the parts where I cried or had to be changed by other team members.

You can find a more contemporaneous account here on Anika’s blog.

She also has some more pictures online here.

Her blog also features some detailed posts about the Measles outbreak and is generally writter betterer like and actually updated now and then so you should check it out.

Christmas and New Year in Namibia

January 14, 2010

Firstly a belated Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to both my avid readers.

For Christmas this year a multinational group (3 British, 2 American, 1 Philippino, 1 Malaysian and 1 Namibian) went on a trip organised by yours truly to a place called Torra Bay on the Skeleton Coast. The Skeleton Coast is the harsh unforgiving bit of the Namib Desert that meets the harsh unforgiving waters of the South Atlantic and regularly (even today) lures unwary mariners to wreck their ships and if they survive leaves them in one of the most desolate places on Earth. A good choice for festivities.

On the first night (23rd) two groups met up at a wonderful campsite called OppiKlippe just outside Outjo (my favourite in Namibia). As people took stock of the glorious surroundings, went for walks in the hills and found the showers carved into the rockface they started to relax and think that maybe, just maybe, I had managed not to totally mess up the organisation. Little did they know.

On Christmas Eve we left OppiKlippe and stopping by the Ok in Outjo to stock up on novelty Santas and food (the busiest I’ve ever seen it and with canned carol music over the speakers – it was almost like home) we forged East. Once at Khorixas the last member of our expedition joined up and now in a three vehicle convoy we left tarmac behind and burned (or rather “dusted”) down the gravel for the coast.

Once we had negotiated the park entrance gates and waited for convoy stragglers to turn up it was a short trip to Torra Bay. The Skeleton Coast national park is like the surface of Mars but with less chance of finding life. A wonderfully bleak and empty expanse of rocks and sand stretching seemingly forever into the distance.

Having crossed through this wilderness of nothing we came over a hill and there before us was Torra Bay in all its glory. I had visited previously in September for two minutes and it had been totally deserted. Not now. Covering a couple of square miles was a massive array of windbreaks, tents the size of cathedrals (with smaller tents inside), caravans, trailers, 4x4s and throbbing over it all the sound of a couple of hundred throaty generators roaring away.

Oh.

We found two adjacent pitches and set up. Whereas at OppiKlippe our seven tents looked like a big organised camp here, set against the background of the canvas cities, they looked small and feeble.

It turns out that Torra Bay is basically for hardcore fisherpeople. They bring everything with them (one lot even had their own donut trailer), build a replica of Johannesberg with canvas, setup their generators and then race off with massive fishing poles to go and fight sharks or something. There are no brai (BBQ) pits, seats or tables. The toilets (which thankfully there were) are of the “drop” model which is fair enough but without water to wash afterwards. Water is available for 50c per litre and showers are $2 a go (though there is hot water for your $2).

Naturally we had no generator, oil drum or other brai equipment, table, windbreak, tent to go over our tents and only one chair.

What little hope any of the party had that I had organised well following on from OppiKlippe rapidly disappeared from faces as tents were setup and a fire pit dug by hand under the drumming of generators.

Christmas Eve night we stayed up until gone midnight around the fire trading stories such as “where I would rather be for Christmas”. It was all rather jolly.

Christmas morning began with a festive game of Cricket in which, once we had convinced our colonial brethren to hold the bat straight, some fun was had.

Afterwards we drove up the coast to Terrace Bay hoping to see some of the many shipwrecks the tour guides and internet searches promised were lurking just along the coast. Alas, no.

Terrace Bay is a more substantial place than Torra Bay with actual permanent buildings, holiday cottages and a clinic. It also had mobile phone network which was good for those who had brought their phones and worthless for those that had left them at the camp (such as me).

Enquiries at the tourist centre (yes I know – proper civilisation) revealed the only shipwreck was a further 80km of bumpy road further North and we would need special permission to visit it. Unfortunately nobody was answering the phone at wherever it was so the permission wasn’t forthcoming.

We dropped by the clinic to say hi as most of us were Ministry of Health people (and also to fill up some water for free – sssh) when one of the party, boredly reading our permit noticed a set of handwritten rules on the top including “1. Don’t go to Terrace Bay“. Oh. Too late.

We decided against simply deleting don’t from the rule and instead just beat a hasty retreat back to Torra Bay. Not hasty enough. Barely out of the town and a Minitry of the Environment bakkie appeared and flagged us down demanding to see our permit. The one that explicitly forbade us from going to Terrace Bay.

That an official was working at all on Christmas Day let alone actually out and enforcing permit restrictions speaks volumes either for the selfless dedication of the staff or the ingrained bitterness they feel having spent years stuck at the very end of the earth fostering hatred against the tourist-scum that are the reason they’re there in the first place. I am not sure which it is.

Luckily as he was pulling his official fine book out and counting heads whilst grinning with mirth one of our member was able to implore upon him to let us off as we are just a bunch of penniless volunteers who apologise unreservedly, accept our stupidity in not reading fully the permit and will never, ever, do it again. He relented. This meant my plan of running into the dunes and living wild within the park didn’t have to come into effect.

Safely back at Torra Bay with the comforting phut-phut of generators all around a mighty and excellent effort was made to produce Christmas dinner. Potatoes were roasted in foil, chicken cooked, garlic bread prepared and many other wonders brought forth. Naturally I had nothing to do with it.

It was excellent. Doubly so considering the lack of, well, just about anything to aid preparations.

Afterwards the wind built and built and built and built. In the end most of us were sitting in my car.

At some point one of the tents collapsed totally. Obviously this is not at all funny. In the slightest. Apart from it being the funniest thing I had ever seen that is. Luckily no lives or property was lost and she slept ok in the back of her car.

Various groups of Afrikaners who had been treating our camp as some pitiable leper colony to be avoided whilst they went into their dinner tents with full tables and chairs to be waited upon by the staff they had brought with them (seriously) now came from far and wide to gawp then snigger at the collapsed tent.

That night my tent just about bent double though other than being repeatedly smothered by polyester I suffered no ills and it was still standing in the morning.

On Boxing Day we decided against trying to get another night at Torra Bay and headed back inland. Arriving at the gate we discovered that the permit was missing and had to deploy charm and people-skills to get out of the park. A quick wheel change on one of the cars later and we were off again. Two of the party headed to Khorixas and the rest of us up through Sesfontein.

That night we stayed at a campsite called Warmquelle which had been recommended. It was a nice spot by a babbling brook with a lagoon. The only slight issue was driving down a steep sheer-drop-sided road and then through a river to get to our sites.

The next day we watched in horror as several “big” 4x4s stalled or otherwise had problems getting through the river and back up. Obviously like the kind of hardened trekkers we now are both our cars (“little” 4×4 RAV4 and 2×4 Condor) made it through and up with no drama.

From there back to Opuwo through a mountain pass and various dried up riverbeds.

Strangely it seems that most of the party are already making plans for next Christmas and only two of us are up for the “even more remote than Torra” plan. Finding somewhere that meets this criterion is proving a bit of a challenge but the middle of the Kalahari is the current front runner.

For New Year I organised yet another hell-trip, this time to Ruacana up in the far north. The falls were off as usual (though agreed by all to be theoretically impressive were they on).

Then it rained. And rained. And rained.

Obviously being from the UK I seldom go anywhere without full wet weather gear and was the envy of everyone when I pulled a cagool and waterproof trousers out.

At midnight the dam sounded the “we’re opening the floodgates” siren but nothing else happened.

The big change since I was last at Hippo Pool is the addition of hand-drawn signs of a satisfied looking crocodile with the words “Don’t Swim” above. This is following a most unfortunate incident where a German tourist got eaten.

Didn’t seem to put the locals off swimming but I didn’t fancy it much.