You don’t head off into Namibia’s Chuck Norris regions if you don’t know what you’re doing. The unpredictable terrain of Kaokoland, the water traps of Mamili and the Namib dunes are for experienced 4x4 drivers only. And if you comb your hair with a hedgehog and belt your pants with a Cape cobra, Khaudum will be right up your alley.
This national park, situated in the northeast of the country on the border with Botswana, is one of Namibia’s least accessible corners. A visit to the park can easily be combined with a few days in the Nyae Nyae Conservancy south of the town of Tsumkwe. The area is called the Pannetjiesveld because of all the pans. And if you follow the recommended south-north route through Khaudum National Park, you end up on the doorstep of the Caprivi Strip.
I’m here with the Swanepoel and Calitz families. Johan and Leonie Swanepoel have a company called Mondjila Adventures, which offers guided 4x4 tours through the region. But right now they’re just on holiday. Luckily they both know how to drive a 4x4, so I can just sit back and enjoy the ride.
Vogel Pan, south of Tsumkwe, is usually dry, but fills up after heavy summer rains. The pall of smoke on the horizon is from winter veld fires.
The perfect launch camp for a trip into Khaudum is Roy’s Camp – 55km north of Grootfontein, next to the B8, opposite the C44 turn-off to Tsumkwe. It’s late winter, but hot enough for the kids to head to the small pool at reception when we arrive. The Swanepoel and Calitz clans are regular campers, so it’s a well-oiled operation: tents pop up, chairs unfold and soon things are being chopped up for dinner.
At sunset it’s quiet except for the muted rustlings of the campers. Like Ben Calitz inflating his mattress: swiet-swiet-swiet... We braai, tuck into a delicious meal and hit the tents. In the morning, after breakfast, I walk over to our neighbours. Mark Boorman and Hartmut Kolb are serious birders – they’re doing research on babblers.
Noisy black-faced babblers have been causing a racket around the campsite all morning and Mark and Hartmut have caught one in a net trap. Now they are measuring and weighing the bird. The Calitz and Swanepoel kids also gather around, wide-eyed at the methodical investigation. Mark and Hartmut want to see if this babbler is the same species as the babbler found in Angola, further north. A couple of minutes later the bird is released. It flies to the nearest tree and hurls abuse at us.
Then it’s time to go – nothing’s close in Namibia (except the sun) and Tsumkwe is more than 270km away. We’ll be spending nearly two weeks together. As with any long camping trip, it takes a while before everyone has figured out their roles: who sits where in the car, who is responsible for packing what… Thankfully I don’t seem to have any tasks except taking photos.
The C44 is a straight white gravel road that bisects Namibia’s Bushmanland. At Grashoek we turn in to see what’s happening at the Living Museum of the Ju/’Hoansi-San. You can go on a walk with a Bushman to learn more about his people’s way of life and there’s a basic campsite where you can stay over.
Back on the C44 we drive across the Omatako Omuramba. “Omuramba” is a Herero word that means “dry river bed”. The Omatako is a very long (nearly 500km), very old river. Its source is halfway between Okahandja and Otjiwarongo, and it then flows north to the Okavango River. In a good rainy season it carries water; the rest of the time it’s just another omuramba. In Tsumkwe we stop at the general dealer and fill up the two Land Rovers.
The little shop is busy – tourists and locals come and go. On the wall I spot a page advertising a vacancy. Potential candidates are expected to be fluent in Ju/’Hoansi, and also to be “trustworthy”, “humble” and “sober-minded”. Frans Labuschagne works behind the counter at the store. The fridge is being restocked – a whole new shelf of beers, even though it’s barely noon. “Ja,” says Frans. “We’ve sold 72 quarts already this morning.”Close
The Nyae Nyae Conservancy
The Nyae Nyae Conservancy is south of Tsumkwe. The Land Rovers slurp up the jeep tracks – it’s dry and the going is easy enough. Next to Vogel Pan we drive up a slight rise to take in the view. Happy to be out of the cars, the kids run down to the flat white surface of the pan. We see an ostrich and something in the distance that looks like a jackal.
A Burchell’s sandgrouse and its chick scurry away – the chick looks like a baby’s bootie. It’s winter and the sky is smoky blue because of veld fires. Baobabs stand out on the landscape like oil rigs at sea. Our destination is the Holboom, a huge baobab that starred in one of the Gods Must Be Crazy movies back in the day. There are a few other baobabs nearby where you can pitch your tent, but because it’s a Namibian school holiday it’s quite busy and all the trees are “taken”.
We set up camp at the Holboom itself, even though you’re not really supposed to. (A guy who manages the community campsite comes over later to collect the camping money and says it’s okay.) Every baobab is special – the sheer size of the tree gives it a cathedral-like grandeur. But the Holboom has some other, mystic aura. When you put your palm to its trunk, it feels as if you’ve completed a pilgrimage and can now carry on with life, re-energised.
The kids don’t care about mysticism. For them, the tree is a giant playground. The main trunk has split, creating a hollow centre; from there you can climb onto the branches that fold out and lie down like octopus tentacles. After dinner we sit around the fire. The flickering light makes strange shadows on the tree. The knobbly bits become faces: a grumpy old man and a woman with her cheeks stuffed full of nuts. It’s warm and I don’t feel like sleeping in my tent.
The moon is full and I climb up the tree with my sleeping bag and mattress. On the biggest branch, wider than a car, I find a flat, indented area where I won’t roll off. Swiet, swiet, swiet… Ben’s battling with his mattress again. It seems to be leaking – he’s spending more time pumping than sleeping. All around me is empty veld, pale in the moonlight.
The air is restless tonight because of all the fires. At about 4am a noise wakes me up. It sounds like an approaching truck, but then I realise it’s just the wind racing across the veld. When it hits me seconds later, it feels like a warm river, the emptied lungs of the landscape. Then I drift off again on my ancient bed of wood, my prehistoric posturepedic.Close
The next morning we drive to the C44, switch back to Tsumkwe and then swing north towards Khaudum National Park. This is true tough-guy terrain. Time to tighten your Cape cobra belt and blow your nose into a nettle leaf. Yup, apply in Khaudum for a position in Chuck’s cabinet. After about 45km we stop at the Dorsland baobab, a landmark for the so-called Dorsland trekkers who left the Transvaal, crossed Bechuanaland (now Botswana) and passed through these parts en route to Angola more than a century ago.
Others have passed through too – you can make out the names of a handful of German Schutztruppe (Hannemann, Gathemann, Heller) who carved their names into the tree in 1891. Please don’t do the same. Rather just take a photo and post it on Facebook; then tag yourself. About 20km further and we’re in the park itself. You pay the entrance fees at Sikereti Camp. Unfortunately the facilities are in a state of disrepair. There are lots of campers here tonight, so things get a bit strained later around shower time. One guy is claiming all the hot water for himself and his group because they started the fire in the donkey boiler. I think of adding, in the words of Billy Joel: “It was always burning, since the world’s been turning,” but I hold my tongue.
The good news is that the Namibia Country Lodges group has won a concession to take over both Sikereti and Khaudum camps. They are currently upgrading the campsites and things should be spick and span by early 2012. They also plan to build two small lodges (eight units each) at both Sikereti and Khaudum, to be completed later in 2012. They don’t want to tame the park, though. The lodges will be built away from the campsites, which will remain rustic and wild. It would be impossible to tame this place anyway. It’s not like you can plonk down a townhouse complex and a Woolies – the hyenas, elephants and jackals will raze you to the ground before lunchtime. This is their place, and the human footprint on this wilderness is small indeed.
After breakfast we set off for the only other campsite in the park – Khaudum in the north. The camp is 100km away and the driving is hard work. In places the sand is thick; in other places the jeep track is simply gnarly. Game-viewing conditions are poor. We see more smoke in the distance and at one point we have to reverse to let a veld fire cross the road. Each waterhole has a sturdy hide from where you can do some game and bird spotting. It’s when you leave the relative safety of the car that you realise how “in the middle of nowhere” you are.
The closest tar road, fuel pump and shop are a day’s drive away – if nothing goes wrong. This sure isn’t the Kruger. But it’s exactly what makes a trip to Khaudum such a sought-after wilderness experience. You come here to experience the animals in a completely natural way. The elephants here do as they’ve always done – walk east until they reach the Okavango Delta or go north into Angola. This sandy wilderness is a refuge, an island that still plays by the old rule: survival of the fittest. We see a few giraffe, some kudu, a single elephant at Baikiaea waterhole and another at Tari Kora.
At Doringstraat there’s a bigger herd, but they’re a bit spooked, probably because of the fire burning nearby. If you’re in luck you’ll see lots more game, including rarities like roan antelope and tsessebe, plus reedbuck and lion. Late afternoon we drive into the wide, grassy clearing of the Khaudum Omuramba. Johan knows where hyenas regularly make their den. As soon as we arrive, three teenage spotted hyenas pop out. Closer to the camp there is a waterhole, but we drive past. I see the ash-grey backs of a few more elephants. At Khaudum Camp there is water but no toilets.
I lie awake for hours. Ben’s swiet-swietswiet died down long ago. I would love to hear the distant roar of a lion. But visitors are not always that lucky. Sometimes you have to be satisfied with merely being in such an immense wilderness. Today we tackle the toughest part of Khaudum – the road out. It’s 50km of deep, thick sand that requires skilful driving. If I had to take the wheel today I’d be breaking out in final-exam sweats. Luckily I’m not driving.
First we head back down the Khaudum Omuramba until it links up with the Tclabashe Omuramba (also called the Cwiba), which we follow to the west until we reach the road north to Katere. Katere, not much of a town, is on the B8 tar road. When you reach the B8 you can turn left to Rundu (113km) or right to Divundu (86km), where we are heading, if you need fuel. Driving through the Tclabashe Omuramba, the thick, powdery dust rolls away from the wheels like muddy “water”. Then we climb onto the sand. Or into it.
It really is a full-time engagement. The track is narrow and, besides having to deal with the wallowing of the car on the unstable surface, the drivers also have to dodge tyre-busting stumps. It takes about two hours to cover the final 50km stretch. The Landies take to their task with gusto, slobbering in the sand like bulldogs after a bone. We reach the tar road without incident. I almost feel like getting out of the car and kissing the tar. We hook a right, to Divundu, to Divundu and cold Coca-Colas. Yes!Close
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
Invite friends along.
The roads in the Khaudum and Pannetjiesveld are strictly for 4x4 vehicles, and it’s wise to travel in a convoy so someone can tow you out when you get stuck. Keep in mind that rain can change road conditions considerably and that some of the roads might become impassable.
The tracks can be faint and confusing, so load the Tracks4Africa waypoints on your GPS device. Take enough food and twice as much drinking water as you think you’ll need. Pack two spare tyres, recovery equipment, a spade, a plank to put under the jack when you change a tyre in sand, andamedical kit.
Fill your tank(s) and jerry cans in Tsumkwe. Remember that you’ll be doing a lot of 4x4 driving, so you’ll be using more fuel than usual.
It’s a risk, especially after rain. If you head into the Caprivi you’ll also need to take care.
If you enter from the north, pay at Khaudum Camp; from the south, pay at Sikereti. It’s a R30 per person one-off fee, no matter how many days you stay, and R20 per car per day.
- Roy’s Camp has a neat campsite with hotwater showers and power points. Camping costs R90 per adult (R72 per person if you’re more than 8 people in the group) and R45 for children between 6 and 12. Accommodation in a bungalow costs R484 per person sharing, including breakfast. Meals available, but book as soon as you arrive. Call 00 264 67 240 302 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
- Tsumkwe Country Lodge is on the outskirts of Tsumkwe. Camping costs R65 per adult and half-price for children aged 5 to 11. There are power points and you can use the pool and the restaurant at the lodge. Lodge accommodation starts at about R400 per person sharing, B&B. Call 00 264 61 374 750 (bookings) or 00 264 67 687 055 (lodge), or e-mail email@example.com
- Nyae Nyae Conservancy. There are no entry fees. The campsites at the Holboom are managed by the community and there is no booking number to call. Just arrive, set up camp and someone will come to collect the camping fee, which is about R30 per person.
- Khaudum National Park. For now, camping is free (it’s built into your park entry fee). You may only camp at Sikereti and Khaudum camps. The campsites were in poor condition during our visit, but they’ve been take over by Namibia Country Lodges and you can expect marked improvements by late 2011 or early 2012.
Once NCL has fixed up the campsites, fees will go up accordingly. In 2012 you will be able to book accommodation via NCL’s central reservation number: 00 264 61 374 750.
- Toast travelled with Mondjila Adventures and go! covered all his costs. Mondjila leads a tour through the Khaudum and Caprivi every year. Visit the website for itineraries of other trips in the region. Call 00 264 64 406 395 or visit www.mondjila.com