Canyon Overlook (Zion National Park)

A short but scenic walk just off the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway, which ends with an impressive view over lower Zion Canyon.

It’s my second visit to Zion National Park: I have a day here, after enjoying the jaw-dropping scenery at Bryce Canyon. Leaving Bryce in the late afternoon, I’ve got just enough time for a short walk on the way to Springdale, where I’m staying overnight. I’ve got an early start on the following day for the West Rim walk.

Coming from the east, I need to cross the national park via the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway. Completed in 1930, it’s an impressive ten-mile stretch of road as it winds past and through rock formation in the park. Near the middle are two tunnels carved through the rock. The second one is 1.1 miles long, with a number of windows along it’s length providing a glimpse of the valley below. Just before the second tunnel is a steep track down from the carpark into Pine Creek, a narrow slot canyon. I explore the first hundred metres or so, before there’s a steep drop. This is the first of six rappels in a strenuous but fairly short canyoneering route.

On the opposite of the road to Pine Creek is the start of the Canyon Overlook trail. The trail heads up a series of stone stairs, rising quickly above the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway and the start of the second and longest tunnel.

The trail then follows the upper walls of the Pine Creek Canyon, at times passing some overhangs.

As the trail progresses you can see down into Pine Creek canyon – far below I can see the small group of canyoners that I’d met half an hour earlier commencing their descent into the canyon.

A bit further on there’s a large overhang that could almost be described as a cave. Directly opposite is the East Temple, rising above Pine Creek.

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A few hundred metres past this overhang is the lookout or overlook. High above the lower Zion Canyon, there’s an impressive view of the Streaked Wall, and the Beehives at the far end of the valley. You can see the switchbacks of the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway below the west end of the Mount Carmel Tunnel. Directly below the overlook is the Great Arch which is recessed into the cliff underneath us.

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After enjoying the view, the sky starts to look threatening and I make a hasty retreat… it’s a fairly quick return back to the car, and there’s only a few drops of rain despite the dark sky. After driving through the Mount Carmel Tunnel, there’s a great view back from the side of the road of the Great Arch. Directly above the Great Arch is the Overlook.

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It’s a scenic drive through a set of switch-backs, as the road descends steeply down to the Virgin River at the bottom of the canyon.

I make one last stop when I reach the parking area along the Virgin River, and go for a short walk down to the river.

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Munching on the lush vegetation bordering the river is a deer, who lets me get fairly close before taking off.

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The Zion Canyon Scenic Drive follows the Virgin River upstream to Zion Lodge to where it ends at the Temple of Sinawava, providing access to most of the popular walks. Between April and October it’s closes to public cars (unless you’re staying at Zion Lodge) and is serviced by a shuttle. I’m staying just outside the park in Springdale, so I continue for another couple of miles down the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway.

Location Canyon Overlook Trailhead and parking lot is just to the east of the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel
Distance Approx 2km (1.2 miles) from carpark
Grade Easy. Total elevation gain of 50m
Season/s All year
Maps National Geographic “Zion Canyon
GPS Route Garmin GPS trail – view route and export to GPX format.
Resources Hiking Zion and Bryce Canyon (Erik Molvar & Tamara Martin)
zion national park hiking map Unique Joe s Guide to Zion National Park Canyon Overlook Trail Hiking Guide
Map showing Canyon Overlook route. Source: Joe’s Guide to Zion National Park Canyon Overlook Trail

 

Bryce Canyon – the top trails!

An extended Bryce Canyon hike that incorporates the Navajo Loop Trail, Peekaboo Loop, Queens Garden Loop and Fairyland Loop to take in the most spectacular sections of the canyon in one day.

I’ve managed to fly in a few days early for a conference, so I’ve got two full hiking days that I’ve split between Bryce Canyon and my second visit to Zion National Park. My general intent is to try and squeeze as many walks as I can combine into one day at Bryce Canyon…

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The Highlights

  • You can’t really go wrong about where to watch the sunset – although Sunset Point is the most spectacular (get there early to get a parking spot or catch the shuttle bus). Or if you want to avoid the crowds, you’ll have Paria View more or less to yourself…
  • Navajo Loop Trail is the best walk if you’re limited for time or not up for a longer walk – even better, combine the Navajo Loop Trail and Queens Garden Trail (2.9 miles / 4.6kms) which captures some of the most impressive vistas. And start as early as you can to beat the crowds on the Queens Garden Trail.
  • Fairyland Loop is perhaps the best of both worlds – not as spectacular as Navajo Loop Trail, but a more contemplative experience without the crowds with a variety of rock formations
  • You could easily spend a few days here – but equally I felt a full day was sufficient (or two days to spread out a few walks). Just make sure you get there in time for at least one sunset! And get up early to avoid the crowds.

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First impressions

I arrive at the spectacular Bryce Canyon late in the afternoon after a 5-hour drive from Las Vegas airport – a bit too late to start any hikes, but just in time to catch the sunset. I make my way to Bryce Point, which offers one of the most scenic vistas of the full Bryce amphitheatre. There’s a large viewing platform with 180-degree views, and a few of the hiking trails start from here. You see sort of what’s in the photo below, but it’s one of those places where a photograph doesn’t do justice to the incredible landscape.

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After admiring the spectacular views from here, I drive a short distance to Paria View. There’s a short walk to this more remote lookout, which faces west and catches the last rays of the setting sun. It’s also much less busy than Bryce Point – I see less than five people for the hour I’m here.

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The views are not as spectacular as Bryce Point, but still pretty impressive as the colours change with with setting sun.

I’ve got just enough time to get to Sunset Point before it’s darkIt’s quite a change after  Paria View – from enjoying an almost deserted lookout, I’m now sharing the view from Sunset Point with hundreds of people, both at the lookout and on the very popular Navajo Loop Trail below.

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Not that the number of people is surprising – this is the most spectacular sunset vantage point, with the hoodoos almost glowing red against the darkening sky.

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I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s hike. ‘Though while some places make you work hard to earn the view, Bryce feels almost the opposite. I could sit here all day and watch the changing colours of the almost surreal landscape, without making any effort.

The Hike

I get up early – to catch the sunrise, avoid the crowds and allow plenty of time for an extended circuit that combines four of the most popular Bryce Canyon trails.

Navajo Loop (1 mile / 1.6km)

Starting at Sunset Point, which is roughly in the middle of my extended hike, I take the Navajo Loop track which descends to the floor of Bryce Canyon.

Being the most popular track, I figure that by starting here early I’ll avoid most of the crowds… I’m not the first person – there’s a line of photographers and tripods facing the rising sun – but no crowds and no problem getting a parking spot. From the start of the walk you can see Thor’s Hammer, an example of a tent rock or fairy chimney (bottom right photo – it’s the tall, narrow pinnacle with an even narrower neck, supporting a large hammerhead-like rock on the left-hand side of the photo).

I head down the left-hand (eastern) trail, which descends steeply via a series of switch-backs. Towering above are hoodoo formations and some Douglas fir trees, which seem out of place in this environment.

Near the bottom is the Twin Bridges formation, just off the track and with warning signs advising of instability. Maybe next time I visit it will be the Single Bridge formation?

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It’s just under a mile to the junction with the trail that connects the Navajo Loop to the Peekaboo Loop Trail. (You can also continue back to the top via the Navajo Loop Trail, which is a 1.4mile / 2.2km circuit in total.)

Peekaboo Loop Trail (4 miles / 6.4km)

From the start of the Peekaboo Trail, Silent City can be seen to the north just below Sunset Point where I started the walk – it’s an extraordinarily high concentration of hoodoos. (I’m doing the circuit in an anti-clockwise direction, which is the opposite to the direction you’re supposed to walk. It’s still pretty early in the day and I figure I won’t encounter many people on the trail.)

Another impressive formation is The Cathedral, a large butte that stands behind several large hoodoos.

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The Peekaboo Trail then winds past numerous hoodoos, and there are views of the Wall of Windows to the south, a long, thin ridge containing several natural arches.

Just over a mile into the Peekaboo Trail, there’s a faint but obvious track that heads off to the left (east) – it might be an older route that’s no longer used. This small detour offers a great view of the hoodoos around the track, and you can see Peekaboo Trail itself winding along the valley.

The trail then goes through a tunnel cut into the ridge

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After the tunnel, the trail descends steeply via a set of switch-backs: in the distance, to the south, is Paria View.

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The trail follows a series of washes. I spot a mule deer just above the path – about the only wildlife I see all day.  Just after my mule encounter, I reach the trail that connects the Peekaboo Trail with Bryce Point.

I continue along the Peekaboo Trail (I could also have gone up to Bryce Point and then taken the Rim Trail back to Sunset Point). I’m happy, in hindsight, with the decision to continue along the Peekaboo Trail. The trail swings around to the north and heads towards a cluster of hoodoos.

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Another artificial tunnel creating an arch provides another nice photo opportunity, as the trail ascends gradually up the valley.

The trail is more exposed here, with hoodoos on both sides of the wide valley.

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Looking back, the arch cut into the rock can be seen, with hoodoos above and Bryce Point in the background.

The final stretch of the Peekaboo Loop Trail back to the Navajo Loop junction is fantastic walking, with hoodoos and pink limestone formations on both sides of the trail

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It’s taken just under 2.5 hours to cover the 8km, down to the canyon floor via the Navajo Loop Trail and around the Peekaboo Trail to the start of the Queen’s Garden Trail.

Queen’s Garden Trail (2 miles / 3.1km)

Another trail, another tunnel… the Queen’s Garden Trail starts (or ends) with a tunnel cut into the rock, before following a long row of hoodoos that are right next to the trail.

It’s less than a mile to Queens Garden (0.8 miles / 1.3km), where there’s a short trail that leads to the Queen Victoria formation. Which I think is the one below 🙂

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I’m beginning to get a big hoodoo-ed out by now, although the Queen’s Garden lookout is pretty impressive. It’s now about 9am, and while I saw about three people on the Peekaboo Loop trail, the Queens Garden Trail is much busier. There’s about ten people at the viewing area, so I don’t venture up some of the side trails that would offer a better view – but are all signposted with “closed” signs.

The trail starts to ascend gradually from here; I’m now sharing the trail with a few more people.

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There’s three tunnels along the Queens Garden trail between the valley and Sunrise Point. The first tunnel marks the start of (another) very scenic and high-hoodoo section!

The trail now heads straight up towards a number of tall hoodoos, before it follows the base of the formations.

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Then through the second tunnel, where the trail starts to get steeper and switchbacks between hoodoos.

As the trail gains altitude there’s some nice views to the east, towards the Aquarius Plateau to the east

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As the trail nears the top, there’s also a nice view of the Queens Garden Trail below and the formations of the “Queens’ Garden” to the west.

The views as the Queens Garden Trail nears Sunrise Point are truly impressive, and I’m stopping frequently to take photo (and possibly because it is now getting a bit warm in the sun!) There’s views a long way out to the south and south-east, and huge drop-offs from the trail to the valley below.

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Fairyland Trail (9 miles / 14.5km)

From Sunrise Point the trail follows the top of the ridge for a short distance (500m) before reaching the Fairyland Loop. I decide, for no particular reason, to do the loop in an anti-clockwise direction, and set-off down from the ridge and towards Tower Bridge.

The trail descends gradually but constantly – if you’re only doing this hike start early as the first few miles is very exposed (I’m going downhill, so it’s not too bad). I’m pleasantly surprised that despite being a far less popular walk (partly due to its length) the scenery along the descent to Tower Bridge is no less spectacular than any of the other walks. And even though it’s mid-morning, I only see a handful of people on the walk (many of them on their way back, as they started much earlier.)

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To the south is the Chinese Wall (or China Wall), another prominent formation, which is considered to be one of the best examples in the Bryce Canyon of the evolution of walls into fins, windows and hoodoos.

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The Fairyland trail descends relentlessly – I’m glad I’m heading down to the valley. Seeing the track endlessly snaking up the hill would have been a bit disheartening! I’ve also seen the formation below described as the Chinese Wall – it’s a very long row of hoodoos that the trail follows the base of.

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After about 1.5 miles (2.5km) from the start of the trail is the the turn-off for Tower Bridge, another feature of this walk. The side-track to the viewing area below Tower Bridge is only about 200 yards / 180m. On any other walk it would be amazing. After five hours of walking almost non-stop through hoodoos it’s still impressive, but somehow I seemed to have reached a point of rock-formation-exhaustion!

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The Fairyland Loop track is fairly exposed for most of it’s length as it winds around some large formations. There’s another view of  Tower Bridge from above, where you can see more clearly the natural arch formed by the extreme weathering in Bryce Canyon.

Another prominent formation that can be seen from different angles along the track is the Boat Mesa (below). This huge formation is in the middle of Fairyland Loop Trail.

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I haven’t seen much wildlife, but when I find a stunted tree near the track that offers a little shade for a lunch break, I see a Steller’s Jay. It’s a conspicuous bird with bold black-and-blue colouring, and the only crested jay of the western states. A bit further on I spot an Arizona Thistle Flower, a North American species of thistle in the sunflower family.

The trail ascends for the last 1.5 miles – although fairly gradually, and with plenty of rock formations to distract you from the climb.

It gets a bit steeper as the trail nears Fairyland Point on the ridge, but never as steep as the other trails into the valley, like the Najavo Loop trail. An impressive row of hoodoos  faces the trail on the opposite side of Fairyland Canyon.

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Just before reaching Fairyland Point, there’s a nice view of the Sinking Ship formation in the distance.

I reach Fairyland Point at the top of the ridge at about 2pm, with just the final stretch along the top of the canyon to get back to the car.

Fairyland Point to Sunset Point – Rim Trail (3 miles / 5km)

It’s uphill from Fairyland Point to Sunset Point, especially the first mile, but fairly gradual. The Rim Trail follows the edge of the escarpment, so there’s great views over the canyon below.

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It’s a constantly changing landscape of rock formations as far as the eye can see.

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Just before the Rim Trail meets the start of the Fairyland Loop track, I make a small and unplanned diversion to the North Campground General Store for a cold drink. It’s now just half a mile before I’m back at Sunset Point. The car park’s now full and the lookout crowded. It’s time to leave…

It’s been a long day of hiking, through the most incredible landscape. In hindsight I’m happy with the route I took, although I would have changed it slightly to do Queens Garden Loop first to avoid the crowds, then the Peekaboo Trail. Even better would be to visit during a less popular time of year – I hope one day I can do the same hike again in winter!

Location You could start from Sunrise Point or Sunset Point. I started at Sunset Point (plenty of parking if you get here early and a shuttle-bus stop) and took the well sign-posted Navajo Loop Trail
Distance 26.8km (16.5 miles) as walked (combining four separate trails)
Grade Moderate/Hard. Total elevation gain of 1,015m elevation gain
Season/s Most of the year (May-Sep is peak season), Some trails may be closed or hard to navigate in winter
Maps
  • “Exploring Bryce Canyon” map from Visitor Centre is sufficient for most hikes
  • National Geographic “Bryce Canyon NP” (1:20K & 1:40K) is best
GPS Route Garmin GPS trail – view route and export to GPX format.
Resources Hiking Zion and Bryce Canyon (Erik Molvar & Tamara Martin)
Map-BryceCanyon
Map showing Bryce Canyon route (yellow)

Drawing Room Rocks

Drawing Room Rocks is a natural rock feature near Berry on the edge of the Illawarra escarpment, offering extensive views over Kangaroo Valley and Berry.

The walk to Drawing Room Rocks (in the Barren Grounds Nature Reserve) is relatively short – and offers a lot of reward for relatively little effort, with sweeping views over the mountains to the south and the ocean to the east. Of the shorter walks in the area, I’d argue Drawing Room Rocks is one of the best walks in the Shoalhaven area! Apparently the walk is not actively promoted due to “access and safety concerns”, although it’s the first in my “Best Walks of the Shoalhaven” book and is in walking distance of our accommodation on the outskirts of Berry.

While my hiking book (and a number of Web sites) state the walk is 4.5km return, part of this distance includes a section of unsealed road that is open to traffic. Parking is limited near the trackhead, but there was ample parking on the Easter weekend when I visited. From the start of the walking track, it’s only 1.4km to the Drawing Room Rocks plateau.

 

 

The well-worn track rises constantly but is never very steep, as the track goes from semi-rainforest to more open eucalypt forest. About half-way up there are a couple of indistinct tracks to the left and right, that provide  the first views to the east and west.

 

 

As the track nears the top, it passes a section of thick banksia scrub, with exposed roots in the sandy soil. The last section of track goes through thick hakea and tea trees, before ending at Drawing Room Rocks.

 

 

The track abruptly ends at a wide rock platform, from which there are sweeping views east to the ocean and west towards Kangaroo Valley. Directly ahead (below) is Broughton Head,  a long, cliff-lined sandstone mesa that’s part of the Rodway Nature Reserve.

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A short distance away at the edge of the rock platform are the features that give Drawing Room Rocks their name – the result of weathering that give the rocks an appearance of flat table tops and chairs. The softer Hawkesbury sandstone has been eroded by wind and rain, while the broad tops which consist of a harder and more resistant mineral layer have remained.

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When I arrive, about an hour before sunset, I’ve got the rock platform almost to myself There’s just Richard and Amy, also keen photographers, who share the view with me as the sun begins to set.

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Shortly before dark, a small throng of people arrive: Drawing Room Rocks is clearly a popular spot for locals. There’s wine, beers and more cheese than the local deli laid out on the rocks, as people settle in to watch the sun set. And it’s hard to think of a better spot to be!

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I head back just after sunset – I’ve got a torch but the track is uneven. And dinner is waiting… It’s a quick 20min walk back down to the car and an even quicker drive to my accommodation for the weekend at Drawing Rooms of Berry.

Location Take Brogers Creek Road (7km north of Berry) and then after 100m turn right into an unsealed road. The trackhead is signposted at the end of this road, next to a gate that leads to a private residence. There’s some parking spots just before the track.
Distance 2.8km return from the start of the walking track.
Grade Easy. Total elevation gain 190m.
Season/s All year. Great vantage point for sunrise or sunset.
Maps Kangaroo Valley 9028-4S
GPS Route Routie GPS trail. View route and export to KML format.
Resources “Best Walks of the Shoalhaven” book, p.12

Flannel Flower Beach (West Head)

A scramble over rocks to reach a narrow and exposed beach on West Head.

Looking for short walk to do with one of the kids not too far from home after Christmas lunch, I found a beach that hopefully could be accessed via the West Head Amy Track. I had walked down to the old World War II gun embankments at West Head earlier in the year, but hadn’t seen any obvious track along the coast. So it’s a bit of an exploratory trip on a somewhat bleak afternoon!

Once we reach the first gun casing (the one on the left, or northern-most side), we start following the the rocks along the shoreline. My daughter (11yrs) is with me, and my sister who’s visiting from overseas. There’s some scrambling involved, but nothing too challenging.

After a few hundred metres along the rocks, we clamber up a bit higher, where we find an old steel and concrete structure which may also date back to World War II.

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It’s harder going further up the slope, which is quite steep, so we soon drop back down to the rocks along the shoreline. There’s a “mini tessellated pavement” as we near the headland before the beach, and some flat areas of sandstone where make good progress.

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Progress along the coast stops as we reach the small headland in front of the beach: there’s some large boulders that make it impossible to continue. There’s a nice rock platform with some rock pools with views towards Lion Island. But although we’re almost at Flannel Flower Beach, we still can’t see it.

I complete the last, short leg on my own. It’s an easy “climb” up and around the headland, avoiding the rocks along the shore, and then I’m at the end of the beach. While it’s not the best beach around, the challenge getting to it means you’ll probably have it to yourself… at least at low tide!

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Flannel Flower Beach is a narrow sliver of sand backed by a 5m sandstone bluff. So I’m not sure there would be much of a beach at high tide – and getting to the beach would be much harder and possibly dangerous on a rising tide or at high tide.

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It’s been a fun hour and a half, with some rock scrambling / parkour – and the climb back up to West Head car park helping to offset a few of the calories consumed at out Christmas lunch…

Location Park at the end of West Head Road (at the lookout)
Distance Approx 2km in total. Flannel Flower Beach is about 500m from the end of the Army Track.
Grade Moderate. Total 105 ascent; rock scrambling
Season/s All year at low tide.
Maps Ku-ring-gai & Berowra Valley Visitor Guide (from Info Centre)
Or the free map from entry station
GPS Route Routie GPS trail. View route and export to KML format.
Notes
  • The gate to West Head is locked at night – from 8:30pm to 6am during daylight savings periods and 6pm to 6am at other times of the year
  • In times of extreme fire danger, walking trails may be closed.
  • Park entry fees apply, from $12 per vehicle.

 

Figure Eight Pool (Royal NP)

A relatively short walk to a (very) popular natural rock formation in the Royal National Park, an hour south of Sydney.

If you’re after crowds of people taking selfies, this is the walk you need to do! Actually, it wasn’t too busy on the very hot, 40-degree day I picked to visit the Figure Eight Pool (or Figure 8 Pool). It was a weekday, which would have helped. There were about ten people around the pools, but a local I spoke to on the nearby beach said on some days there could be hundreds of people visiting. There are over 14,000 photos on Instagram alone that have been taken at the pools, which have become a “social media sensation“!

I’ve walked past the Figure Eight Pool many times: the Otford to Bundeena coastal walk is one of my favourite summer walks. But I’ve never taken the time to make the short detour around the rocky headland to see this attraction, so today I’m taking the most direct route to the pool. The return trip from the Garrawarra Farm car park is about 6.5km, mostly on good tracks. It’s well sign-posted, as it heads down the Burgh Ridge towards the coast.

After about a kilometre, Burning Palms Beach can be seen below.

Despite being accessible only by foot, Burning Palms Beach has a Surf Life Saving Club that was formed in 1939 and patrols the beach every Sunday and public holidays from the last weekend in September to the end of April each year (the beach has a permanent rip at the northern end).

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The track so far has been in the shade, as it descends fairly steeply through the forest. After the first kilometre it gets more exposed. You can see one of the rock platforms that must be traversed, and there’s another warning sign about safety at the pools There’s been a number of injuries from waves sweeping over the rocks, including 70 people injured by a freak wave in 2016. The pools should only be accessed around low tide, and avoided when there is a high swell. (At high tide, the Figure Eight Pool is underwater, and inaccessible.)

Another 600m along the steel track (1.8km in total from the carpark), past a few weekender cabins and the Surf Lifesaving Club, and I’m on Burning Palms Beach. Looking back up the beach, you can see most of the cabins that were built as weekenders between 1930 and 1950, before the area was gazetted as a national park (there are 28 cabins here, 20 at Little Garie and 95 at South Era). The National Parks and Wildlife Service has unsuccessfully tried a few times to have the cabins removed. For some time there was a policy of removing the cabins on the death of the owner, or if rent fell into arrears. However, in the 1980s the communities sought and achieved heritage listing with the National Trust of Australia and a moratorium was placed on cabin demolition. With the cabins now recognised as “the largest and most intact groups of vernacular coastal weekender cabins remaining in NSW” it’s likely the current structures are here to stay.

From here there’s no marked track to the Figure Eight Pool, but it’s simple to find… follow the beach to the rocks at the end, then follow the base of the cliffs around the headland.

It’s about an hour before low tide and there’s no problem walking across the rock platforms – but it’s easy to see how dangerous it would on a rising tide or during a heavy swell.

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It’s just under a kilometre from the end of the beach, around the first headland and across a rocky bay to get to the Figure Eight Pool (total distance, 3.2km).

Figure 8 Pool is one of a number of rock pools on the large rock platform, formed by twi circular sinkholes merging. It’s much smaller than I expected, but is very beautiful. It would be a great place to spend an hour or two, if you could find a time where it wasn’t over-run with people! I’ll try and re-visit very early one morning when the tides are right!

From here, I re-trace my steps back along the coast and up the ridge to the car park. There’s a couple of rangers at the top, explaining to a group of tourists that they really need to take water and to be equipped for a 2-hour bushwalk…

Location Start (and end) Garrawarra Farm car park in Royal National Park
Distance 6.5km return
Grade Easy. Some rock-scrambling along the coast. Total 280m ascent.
Season/s All year – but must be within ~1 hour of low tide to access pools
Maps
  • Royal National Park Tourist Map 1:35,000 (try Visitors Centre)
  • Downloadable Royal Park map (PDF)
GPS Route Routie GPS trail. View route and export to KML format.
Resources
Map-RoyalNP-Figure8Pool
Map showing route from Garawarra Farm car park to Figure Eight Pool, Royal National Park

Bouddi Coastal Walk

One of the best coastal walks around Sydney, traversing a number of beautiful beaches and scenic lookouts.

The Bouddi Coastal Walk follows the coast from Little Beach to Putty Beach, through the Bouddi National Park an hour north of Sydney. You can do this walk in both directions, with a few variations to minimize “back-tracking”. I’ve always started at Little Beach – which has the advantage that, if time permits, you can get a cold drink or even lunch at the kiosk at Killcare Beach, before returning. Or you could organise a car shuffle and do the walk in one direction. You can also do the walk in shorter sections. It’s a fantastic and fairly easy walk  that was nominated as “one of the 18 best day walks in Australia” by  Australian Geographic. (If you’re after a shorter walk that offers the best of Bouddi National Park, I’d strongly recommend the Bullimah Spur circuit).

Starting near Little Beach, you can take either the “Old Quarry Trail” or “the Bouddi Coastal Walk” trail from the carpark, both join up eventually (the Coast Walk track is narrower and more of a foot trail).

 

(Little Beach can be accessed via a separate path from the carpark, or a short detour off the Coast track. It’s a small, sheltered beach with a grassy area where camping is permitted. On a warm day, a good spot for a final swim before returning to the car but it’s not the nicest beach along this section of coast.)

After 400m the two trails join and become a wide fire trail for a while, before turning back to a narrow trail again about two kilometres from the start.

 

From here the track follows the coastline quite closely, and while a bit exposed, I think it’s one of the nicest sections of the Coastal Track. There’s great views over the ocean and along the coast: Bouddi Point is just ahead, followed by Gerrin Point, and far off in the distance is Box Head.

 

After 3.5km, we’re at Maitland Bay (I’m doing this walk with my father). The track descends steeply down to the eastern end of the the beach.

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A sheltered bay, Maitland Bay is one of the most picturesque beaches around Sydney. It’s often mentioned as one of the top “secret” beaches in NSW (eg. Australian Traveller’s “21 Secret Beaches in Sydney and NSW“). If you have time, it’s a nice spot for lunch or a swim, with many shaded areas along the middle of the beach. It’s never busy, although every year there’s a few more people on the beach… If you go mid-week you’ll probably have the beach to yourself (we saw two other people on a Thursday).

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The beach is named after the SS Maitland (having previously been called Boat Harbour), a paddle steamer which ran aground and sank in 1898, killing 27 people. The remains of the boat can be seen at low tide, just off the rocks at Bouddi Point.

 

From here, we follow the beach around to the far end, taking the Maitland Bay track at the other end of the beach. After a couple of hundred metres the main track continues up the hill (this is the shortest access to the beach) but we go left, continuing along the Coastal Track.

 

This is another nice section of the Coastal Walk, again closely following the coast and offering a combination of views and shaded sections of forest.

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It’s not far from here (about 1.5km from Maitland Bay) to Gerrin Point Lookout, where there’s a timber platform perched on the edge of the cliffs. It’s a great spot for whale watching; not that I have the patience to stand there and look for passing whales! But if you had the patience, it would be a good spot at the right time of year.

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From the lookout you can see the crescent-shaped Maitland Bay, where we’ve come from, and over the Bouddi National Park Marine Extension. We’ve done just under six kilometres so far, and are nearing the end of the walk.

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The last section is the most popular, and you’re unlikely to be on your own… A timber boardwalk follows the coast, with a turn-off to the small Bullimah Beach just after Gerrin Point.

 

A little further on is the tessellated pavement, where the the sandstone has been subdivided into regular rectangles.

 

A bit more boardwalk, and I’m at the end of Putty Beach. This is the longest beach in the Bouddi National Park, consisting of Putty Beach at the northern end and Killcare Beach at the southern end. A stroll along the beach to the far end takes you to Killcare Surf Life Saving Club, where there is a kiosk that’s open every day until about 3pm.

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It’s 7km to Putty Beach; there’s no choice from here other than to return the same way along the boardwalk superhighway to Gerrin Point and then the track to Maitland Bay. (I discover later that the Bullimah Spur Walking Track actually joins the Coastal Walk near Gerrin Point, which is not shown on any of the maps – so I’ll come back another time to walk this route.)

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From Maitland Bay, to avoid returning the same way, we take the Maitland Bay Track, which climbs steadily up to the ridge. It’s a shaded track that provides the most direct access to the beach.

 

At the end of this trail is the carpark, and the Bouddi National Park Information Centre, open for a few hours on weekends. We continue along the Stroms Trail. A wide track that follows the road, it’s also suitable for mountain biking.  There’s rarely anyone else on this trail – today there’s just a lace monitor, one of of Australia’s largest lizards sharing the track with us.

 

The Stroms Trail follows the ridge for about 2.3km, before joining the main road (The Scenic Road). From here it’s a rather boring 2km walk along the The Scenic Road and down Grahame Drive back to the car (although mostly in the shade and downhill, so it’s not too bad on a hot day).

Start / End points
Distance 14km return
(18km return if going to the end of Putty/Killcare Beach and back)
Grade Easy. Total 450m ascent.
Season/s All year.
Maps
  • Broken Bay topographic map (NSW 9130-1N) 1:25K
  • Bouddi National Park sketch map from park office. 1:25K
GPS Route Routie GPS trail. View route and export to KML format.
Resources
Map-BouddiNationalPark-CoastalWalk
Map showing Bouddi Coastal Walk route with different route options

 

The Window

A long and fairly tedious walk – but rewarded by the view from the Window, a canyon that cuts through the Chisos mountain rim 

This is another walk that’s probably very busy at certain times of the year, but as I set out an hour before sunset there’s no-one else around. Although late in the day, I was looking for a trail that might provide a good sunset vantage point. The trail starts at the Basin car park – although you can also start at the Basin Campground (making it a slightly shorter route).

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The well-made trail soon starts descending, with the destination visible in the distance: the V-shaped gap at the of the valley (to the immediate left of the gap is Carter Peak, and to the right is Vernon Bailey Peak).  There’s no marked track to the top of Vernon Bailey Peak, but you can hike to the top and the views are said to be among the best in Big Bend.

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Catching the last of the sun’s rays is Pulliam Peak (or Pulliam Bluff) – one of the two main peaks making up the northwestern rim of the Basin along with Vernon Bailey Peak.

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The trail is fairly exposed for the first mile as it crosses the middle of the Basin, until it reaches Oak Creek. It then enters a forest of pines, oaks and juniper.

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The trail follows Oak Creek, and after 2.3 miles (3.7km) there’s a junction with the Oak Springs Trail. This trail leads to a look-out, and continues down toward Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive – The Window can also be reached via this track, which I’ve read is a more scenic route (but a 4WD is recommended to reach the trailhead). Just after this junction the trail enters a rock canyon, carved by Oak Creek. The creek is the only drainage point for the entire Basin, so while rainfall is low, when there is a storm considerable water is funnelled through the canyon.

 

Near the end of the canyon there are stone steps carved into the rocks, and Oak Creek is crossed several times.

 

The Window marks the end of the canyon: a narrow crevice carved by Oak Creek, with a sheer, vertical drop to the desert floor below. The canyon floor is smooth and slippery, so caution is needed.

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Facing almost directly west, it’s not a bad spot to photograph the sunset, with the “window” framing distant Chisos mountains.

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I stay here for half an hour or so, as the sky gets gradually more orange…  there’s no-one else here, and the photos don’t really do justice to the view and serenity.

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Eventually I need to get going – not so much as it’s starting to get dark (I have a head-torch), but because I’m getting pretty hungry, and I’ve got a 2.8 mile hike back out I need to do before the restaurant closes…

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Location The Basin car park (or the Basin campground, which makes the hike slightly shorter)
Distance 8.95km (5.5 miles) return
Grade Easy. 290m ascent on a well-built trail.
Season/s All year round. Avoid after/during storms
Maps The Basin topographical map.
Also “Big Bend” Trails Illustrated topographical map.
GPS route Routie GPS trail. View route and export to KML format.
Resources Hiking Big Bend National Park (Laurence Parent), p.62
BigBend-Window
Route to the Window from the Basin. Source: “Hiking Big Bend National Park” book

The Best of Big Bend (Texas)

A combination of driving and hiking, to explore the best parts of Big Bend National Park over two days.

Having arrived at Big Bend from Sydney after about 19 hours of flying on three flights followed by a four hour drive, I couldn’t face an early start to tackle one of the longest day-hikes in the park (South Rim). Instead, my first day at Big Bend would be a drive through the park. I’d do some of the shorter hikes I’d picked out from my guide book, that would reveal some of the different landscapes in Big Bend National Park. The second day would be the Big Bend Big Hiking Day!

Overview

Texas would not normally be top of my list as a hiking destination in the US. But I’m in Dallas for a conference, and my closest option is Big Bend National Park. Bordering Mexico, it’s a 1:15min direct flight from Dallas (to Odessa Midlands airport). It wouldn’t be too hot in late October/November, and there was a big range of walks. The scenery was spectacular, and the hiking completely exceeded my expectations! You could easily stay a week here exploring the area – my recommendation would to book well ahead if you can, and stay at the Chisos Mountain Lodge (the only accommodation within the park). October to May is regarded as the best time to go, and the very end of October was perfect – warm but not hot days, and chilly evenings.

As well as hiking, the park is a good place for astral viewing or photography  – in 2012, the park was named as an international dark-sky park by the International Dark-Sky Association. You can also do rafting or canoeing trips down the Rio Grande River (which I didn’t have time for, and I prefer hiking given the limited time). To reach some of the trailheads, a high-clearance 4WD vehicle is required – or so I was told. I didn’t want to risk getting stuck or puncturing a tire on my rental car.

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Highlights

It’s hard to pick out any single area or hike – and with only two full days, I didn’t get to Rio Grande Village, and the border crossing with Mexico. This could be another full day trip, including some of the walks in this area.

So, what are the best hikes in Big Bend? My recommendations, if you only have a few days in the area:

  • Emory Peak and South Rim – even more spectacular views than Lost Mine, but a long day walk. If you don’t like heights or rock scrambling, skip the summit and do the extended South Rim (Northeast and Southeast Rim trails). If you only do one walk in Big Bend – do this one!
  • Lost Mine –  great views for a relatively short walk. Go very early – or late – to avoid the crowds as it’s a popular walk. I had the top to myself for over an hour in the late afternoon, and it’s good spot to watch the sun set (bring a good torch!)
  • Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive (below) – you could easily spend the day exploring the area, if you do some of the shorter walks.
  • Santa Elena Canyon at the end of Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive – very different scenery from the other walks, as you follow the Rio Grande upstream.

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Day One – Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive and Lost Mine

On entering the park on the 118 near Study Butte (I’m coming from Terlingua Ranch, the closest accommodation I could find at relatively short notice), the ranger recommends Maxwell Drive as being the most scenic option. After the flat and almost monotonous landscape all the way from Odessa Midlands to Big Bend, the mountains rising out of the desert make a pleasant change.

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My first stop is the Sotol Vista Overlook, a short detour off Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. There’s space for many cars to stop, but I share the lookout with just one other car and a small group of motorcyclists sporting Swiss flags on their Harleys.

The 180-degree view is impressive, looking over the western side of Big Bend National Park, with Santa Elena Canyon in the distance.

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Not long after the Sotol Vista Overlook turn-off, the Mule Ear peaks are visible in the distance. The very distinctive peaks are two volcanic plugs, created by differential erosion of their lava beds.

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Towards the end of Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, the Santa Elena Canyon rises up in the distance, marking the border of the US and Mexico.

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It’s worth a brief stop at the Santa Elena Canyon Overlook, where there’s some interpretative signage about the canyon.  The most impressive in Big Bend National Park, the canyon was formed by the Rio Grande river cutting a deep, narrow gorge through the mountains. It changed direction sharply here, as a result of movement along the Terlingua fault zone that crosses the park.

Santa Elena Canyon (3.2km / 2 miles)

The best way to really appreciate the depth of the canyon is the relatively short Santa Elena Canyon Trail, which is clearly marked at the end of Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. The trail heads through a tall stand of giant river cane, with the start of the canyon behind it.

The mouth of the canyon is soon reached. The cliffs to the right are the easterly edge of the Mesa de Anguila (a large mesa in the western part of Big Bend National Park).

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To enter the canyon, you need to cross Terlingua Creek, which drains into the Rio Grande. It can be dry – or it can flow strongly. I guess it was in between these two extremes, and I managed to cross it without my shoes getting too wet or muddy, but going 50m upstream.

Once this creek is crossed, the path climbs steeply up the side of the canyon on a paved track. This is one of the few exposed sections, with most of the track being shaded.

From the top of this section there’s a great view over the Rio Grande flood plain. In the far distance are the Sierra Quemada and Chisos Mountains.

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The trail then descends as it follows the river into the canyon.

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Most of the trail follows the edge of the river, sometime diverting inland through grass and giant river cane. Eventually there’s a sheer canyon wall that blocks any further access, and marks the end of the trail.

The trail returns the same way the car park.

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Location End of Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive
Distance 2 miles (3.2km) return. GPS route on Routie.
Grade Easy. Total 180m ascent.
Season/s All year round. Can get very busy at peak times
Resources Hiking Big Bend National Park (Laurence Parent), p.102

From here – unless you have a high-clearance vehicle, in which case you can take Old Maverick Road to make a circuit – it’s back up Ross Maxwell Drive… The next stop is the Desert Mountain Overlook, a short walk to a viewpoint over the park.

The closest peak is the distinctive Cerro Castellan (1,004m), and in the distance is the Chisos Mountains with the highest peak in Big Bend, Emory Peak (2,387m).

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Just after the lookout is the Castolon Store where it’s time for lunch: a still half-frozen sandwich, and a drink. The store only gets deliveries weekly, so the choice of food is limited. But it does sell some books on the area, local maps, hats and other essential camping supplies.

Tuff Canyon

The next, short walk is Tuff Canyon, which starts right next to Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. A narrow, sheer-walled canyon, Tuff Canyon was formed Blue Creek, which is one of the largest drainages of the Chisos Mountains.

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It’s a short and well-marked track, with two lookouts over the canyon, which are perched right above the crumbly edge of the canyon walls. The track then descends into the narrow (and shaded) canyon, which it follows for a while, allowing you to get a close look at the very loose “tuff” (a light, porous rock formed by consolidation of volcanic ash) that makes up the canyon.

Location Off Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive (20 miles/32km from start of road)
Distance 0.8 miles (1.2km) return
Grade Easy.
Season/s All year round.
Resources Hiking Big Bend National Park (Laurence Parent), p.99

A few miles after Tuff Canyon, the Mule Ear peaks come into view again.

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I don’t have time to do the full 11km (7 mile) return hike out to the base of the peaks, but I walk the first half a mile or so of the track, to get a view of the Mule Ears and the Chihuahuan desert. It looks like a pleasant walk, but the scenery wouldn’t change much along the trail.

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The Chimneys (8.4km / 4.8 miles)

My last hike from Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive is The Chimneys Trail. It’s a very flat, featureless and exposed hike to the the tall and rocky ridge, visible in the distance. I only see a handful of people, on their way back to the car park. (I wouldn’t recommend this walk if you have limited time.)

 

The Chimneys has always been an important landmark, and Indian rock art marks the base of one of the high pinnacles. There’s not much written about the Indian petroglyphs, which vary in age from thousands of years old to some carved in the 1700s and 1800s.

The petroglyphs are on the southern-most pinnacle, with an unmarked but distinct path leading from the main path up to the base of the rock outcrop.

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While the hike to The Chimneys is horribly boring, the landscape once you get there is interesting. Climbing some of the lower outcrops provides a good view over the desert landscape: to the south is Kit Mountain, and beyond that the Chisos Mountains.

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Location Off Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive (12.8 miles/20km from start of road)
Distance 4.8 miles (8.4km) return. GPS route on Routie.
Grade Easy.
Season/s All year round.
Resources Hiking Big Bend National Park (Laurence Parent), p.84

After this walk, I drive back to the end of Ross Maxwell Drive, and to the Chisos Basin to have a look at the Visitor Centre and get a drink.

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I’ve got time for one more hike: the Lost Mine Trail, which was on my “must do” list from prior research.

Lost Mine Trail (10km / 6 miles)

I had read conflicting reports on the Lost Mine Trail hike, from “must do” to “it’s completely over-rated”. I’d argue it should be near the top of your “to do list”, but pick a time when the trail is less busy. I went a couple of hours before sunset, and had the top (the hike doesn’t actually go to the Lost Mine peak summit) to myself – with great views as the sun set behind the Chisos mountains. I’ve covered this hike in a separate post.

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Day Two – Emory Peak and the Window

Today’s the “big day”, starting with a circuit of Emory Peak and the South Rim, and hopefully allowing enough time for another hike before it gets dark. I end up hiking 40km (25 miles) today across two hikes.

Emory Peak (31km / 19 miles)

The main reason not to do Lost Mine Trail, is if you are doing Emory Peak. This long day-hike offers outstanding views from Emory Peak, with some rock scrambling required at the end to reach the actual peak. It’s best combined with the South Rim, to make this into a circuit – even better, include the Northeast and Southeast Rim trails which adds a couple of miles, but offers panoramic views all the way along the trail. I’ve also covered this hike in a separate post.

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The Window (9km / 5.5 miles)

I’ve got just enough energy left to make it the Window, a canyon that end with a narrow slit in the Chisos mountain rim. It’s a pretty tedious walk, that goes gently downhill from the Basin car park. I wouldn’t like to do this walk in the middle of summer, especially coming back up the hill. But the somewhat boring nature of the walk is compensated by the last half a mile, where you enter a narrow canyon (with steps carved into the canyon walls) and end in front of the narrow Window, overlooking the desert.

Do this walk near the end of the day; you’ll avoid the crowds (I had the place to myself) and enjoy views of the distant mountains under an orange sky. This hike is also covered in a separate post.

https://hikingtheworld.blog/2017/10/29/the-window/

More information

For planning the hikes, the Big Bend” Trails Illustrated topographical map and Hiking Big Bend National Park book by Laurence Parent were invaluable. The free map you get at the entrance gates was also useful when driving through the park.

Some other resources I found useful:

  • Best Hikes in Big Bend (blog) – I don’t agree with some of the advice, but found it useful as a starting point for researching what to do and see.
  • SummitPost – information on the highest peaks in Big Bend, including routes to hike or climb them (many have no marked trails and are for experienced hikers)
  • NPS – the official National Parks Web page, which include the calendar and booking page for Chisos Mountain Lodge (only accommodation in the park, other than camping – book as much in advance as you can).

Have I missed a great walk…? Let me know in the comments! I definitely plan to come back one day and do some more hikes in Big Bend.

Two Weeks Around Namibia

Five years after our last African trip, an amazing seven days in Botswana, we’re off on another African adventure – this time with the kids. We’ve used Cedarberg Travel again, who have done a fantastic job in putting together a “self drive” itinerary, that will take us around the central parts of Namibia over two weeks.

About Namibia

Located in southern Africa, Namibia borders Zambia and Angola to the north, Botswana to the east and South Africa to the south and east. To the west is the Atlantic Ocean, with a largely desolate coastline of 1,570km. Namibia’s name is derived from the Namib (one of the oldest deserts in the world), with the name “Namib” meaning  “vast place”. Due to this large & arid desert, Namibia is one of the least densely populated countries in the world, with a population of 2.1 million people.

Like Botswana, Namibia has a stable multi-party parliamentary democracy. Its economy is based on agriculture, cattle, tourism and mining. It’s a land of extremes, surprising us with a hot & very arid interior (as we expected) but a cool, almost cold, climate along the coast. There’s modern and efficient tourism infrastructure equal to almost anywhere else in the world, but leave the larger towns or tourist lodges and you feel like you’ve left civilisation behind.

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When to go (and for how long)

As always, our travel is dictated by school holidays. We chose the September school holidays as being the best option, although most areas of Namibia are dry all year round. September and October is regarded as the best time for game-viewing, as the landscape is at its driest and animals are more likely to congregate around waterholes.

Conversely, for hiking April/May after the summer rains would be preferable – the one walk I did in Naukluft was very hot and dry, with no chance of swimming or cooling in the dry river beds!

There’s a good summary of the different seasons on the Expert Africa and Responsible Travel web sites.

How long? I reckon you could easily spend a month and not get bored. Two weeks felt a bit too short – we could have spent a few more days at Etosha National Park, and I would have loved to have a couple of days walking in the Naukluft mountains. We also didn’t have time to get to Fish River Canyon, further to the south, as this would have required another 2-3 days to do it justice. In most cases two nights at each lodge was ideal, enough time for one or two morning and evening activities at each location.

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Getting there and around

In contrast to our last trip, where we flew between camps, on this trip we clock up almost 3,000km by car over two weeks. On arrival at Windhoek we pick up our “all wheel drive” vehicle, a Renault Duster. As part of our booking, we’re met by a local tour company that provides us with an esky (chiller) & icepack, local maps and a mobile phone, in case we have any problems.

Namibia has approximately 44,138km of roads, of which just 6,387km are paved [CIA World Fact Book]. As we soon discover, the paved roads are generally very good, and the locals often drive well over the 120km/hr speed limit – we’re told that outside of Windhoek, due to bureaucratic issues, speeding fines can’t be issued. Conversely, the condition of the unpaved “C” and “D” roads are highly variable, and we average about 60km/h on these. Navigation is fairly straightforward and roads well-marked, so while it takes a while to cover the distances between camps, we rarely have any concerns about travelling on our own.

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The Itinerary

In summary, we did a broad circuit of central Namibia. While none of the days had more than about 400km of distance to cover, due to the condition of the “C” roads, there were some days where we drove for most of the day – I wouldn’t suggest covering any more distance each (at least, not with two kids in the car!). Having said that, the longer “drive days” were never boring, with lots to see, both scenery and wildlife. In hindsight, the only major change we’d make is to allow more time at Etosha, and to do the circuit in the opposite direction. We had two nights at each of the lodges/guesthouses:

  1. N/a’an ku sê Wildlife Sanctuary – very close to Windhoek airport, and lots of wildlife to see (but they are mostly rehabilitated animals)
  2. Okonjima Plains Camp – while it would be possible to skip this one and go straight to Etosha, we enjoyed this camp and the leopard and cheetah tracking
  3. Andersson’s Camp (Ongava) – one of the hightlights of our trip, both the drives  within the Ongava Reserve and of course the amazing Etosha National Park
  4. Camp Kipwe (Damaraland) – completely different scenery and a fantastic camp, plus we saw the desert adapted elephants and Twyfelfontein rock engravings
  5. Swakopmund – a completely different coastal climate, and the combination of boat cruise and sand dune 4WD tour made for a great day
  6. Kulala Desert Lodge (Sossusvlei) – one of the best lodges to experience and climb the sand dunes at Sossusvlei
  7. Kalahari Red Dunes Lodge – this was a slight anti-climax after the rest of the trip. While we did a game drive and saw the Kalahari sand dunes, it was not as “wild” or dramatic as the previous lodges, but a nice way to end the trip before returning to Windhoek (had we started here, we probably would have found it amazing)!

Map-Namibia

Trip Highlights

It’s hard to pinpoint the “best bits” of our trip, as we had so many great experiences – and part of the attraction was the variety of activities and landscapes. But, if we had to single out the highlights of our trip it would be:

  • Etosha National Park – the number and variety of animals was well beyond our expectations. We stayed just outside the park at Anderrson’s Camp in the Ongava reserve, and did both an Ongava drive (where we saw a pride of lions) and a half-day drive within Etosha. I’d recommend driving through Etosha if time permits, and spending 1-2 nights inside the national park.
  • Skeleton Coast –  While we had a few moments of doubt (such as when we shredded a tyre about an hour into our journey), the isolation and desolation of the Skeleton Coast was a unique experience
  • Damaraland – Camp Kipwe was (arguably) our most memorable camp, being nestled within granite rocks overlooking the Aba Huab valley. As well as spectacular desert landscapes, the guided tours from Kipwe let us get close to the desert-adapted elephants and see the UNESCO-listed Twyfelfontein site.
  • Swakopmund – the Walvis Bay boat trip to visits seals and watch whales followed by 4WD trip to the sand dunes was one of our best days, combining close-up encounters with sea creatures, exhilarating descents of steep sand dunes (by car and on foot) and great photography opportunities.
  • Sossuvlei – this one depends a bit on your appetite for hiking. If you’re happy to look at the dunes from a 4WD, I think Sossevlei might be disappointing compared to doing a 4WD tour from Walvis Bay. The attraction of Sossuvlei is the opportunity to walk up some of the dunes, see the never-ending sea of dunes from the top, descend from the top of “Big Daddy” to the Dead Vlei, and walk across the barren clay pan through a forest of dead thorn trees.

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N/a’an ku sê Wildlife Sanctuary

Overall rating: 5/5.
Food: 5/5. African-themed set menu. Best feed we had on the whole trip.

Family friendly:  5/5. Three bedroom cottage with lots of living space
Scenery: 3/5. Not a very interesting landscape.
Activities: 5/5. Cheetah experience, Carnivore feeding and “Behind the Scenes” tour are all quite different but well worth doing. 

Our first stop after we land in Windhoek and pick up our car is N/a’an ku sê Wildlife Sanctuary, a relatively short drive from the airport. After about 10km on the paved B6 highway, we turn off down the unsealed D1510 road.

Despite being half an hour from the airport, there’s almost no other vehicles on the road, and we’re already seeing Chacma baboons, warthogs and what my wife later thinks is a leopard when looking at our photos.

We soon arrive at the lodge, which is set in the African savannah amongst camel thorn trees, riverbeds, and a stone canyon.  Overlooking the stone canyon – which contains a small amount of bright green, stagnant water from the last rains – is a far more inviting swimming pool, which the kids use straight away!

In and around the canyon, no doubt attracted by the water, are lots of Chacma baboons, which live in troops of 20-100 animals. Also hiding in the crevices are rock dassie (rock hyrax), which become the kids’ favourite animal! A “small, plump and tail-less guinea-pig-like animal that’s about as large as a big rabbit”, the rock dassie is the closest living relative to the elephant – despite the size difference!

It’s a short day for us, having arrived at the lodge around 4pm: we finish the day with a very nice dinner and watch the sun set, before an early night!

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N/a’an ku sê Wildlife Sanctuary – Cheetah Experience (Day 2)

Today’s a busy day, with a cheetah experiencecarnivore feeding tour and a “behind the scenes” look at N/a’an ku sê. Established in 2006 to support the conservation of Namibia’s vulnerable wildlife and the lives of the local San Bushman people, the sanctuary is situated on a 3,200-hectare reserve. Nankuse hosts an abundance of African wildlife and free-roaming game, including giraffe, zebra, kudu, hartebeest, springbok, eland, jackal, as well as wild cheetahs and leopards. This includes injured or orphaned wildlife that are cared for by volunteers. Many animals will never be released back into the wild, due to being “human imprinted”, which would significantly reduce their survival chances in the wild.

After watching the sun rise, we drive the short distance from our cottage to the main lodge.

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It’s only about 2km to the lodge (it could be covered on foot), and we’re already seeing lots of wildlife – an eland, hundred of scaly feathered finches that dart around in huge swarms, a family of guinea fowl and some fish eagles, high up in the trees.

The first tour is the “Cheetah Experience”, where we walk with cheetahs and observe their behaviour. We thought our kids (9 and 11yrs) might be too young, but we’re told it’s fine as long as they stay close to an adult. The three leopards are released from their cage, and immediately set off, as we follow-them on foot.

Their destination is a tall thorn tree, that they take turns climbing. Out guide explains that they do this as it’s provides vantage point, to observe what’s around.

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Although cheetahs are not as proficient as leopards in climbing trees, and don’t go very high, they have semi-retractable claws that help them climb. They seemed very adept at climbing – but not so confident coming back down!

We watch them for a while as they each check their surroundings, before deciding it’s time to move on. They play for a while on the way back to the car – they seem to know the routine and where to go. The tour lasts about an hour, and we really enjoy following and watching the cheetahs on foot, rather than seeing them from a 4WD vehicle.

N/a’an ku sê Wildlife Sanctuary – Behind the Scenes (Day 2)

After our Cheetah Experience, we’re taken on a tour of Nankuse, which provides an insight into the workings of a wildlife reserve and sanctuary. It also allows us to get very close to some of the animals being rehabilitated.

Our first stop is a porcupine. These spiny creatures are nocturnal, but this one was fairly active in its cage. Next, and more photogenic, is a cheetah cub, which peers at us from its small cage. Our guide explains how mother was killed in a road accident and the cub rescued.

The next encounter is with the leopard tortoise, which weighs up to 20kg and is the fourth largest species of tortoise in the world. Namibia has seven distinct tortoise species, giving it the second-most diverse population in the world (after South Africa), and all of them are classed as threatened. We’re shown how to tell the difference between sexes: the male has a convex plastron (the underside part of a its shell) while the female’s underside is flat.

We then see the small-spotted genet, a small, cat-like animal which is mainly nocturnal. They are great climbers (although they hunt on the ground) and

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In the same enclosure as the genet is our favourite animal: the rock dassie (although its correct name is the rock hyrax). A little shy at first, it is gradually coaxed out of it’s hiding spot with some food.

A bit later on the tour, another rock dassie (in a different enclosure) is happy to be given a cuddle while it munches on some greenery! We all agree we want one of these as a pet!

Around the sanctuary are many birds – the fairly common Greater Blue-eared Starling and Red-headed finch being a few of the ones we see.

The most engaging animals are the baby baboons; after taking off glasses, everything out of our pockets and anything that the mischievous baboons might steal, we enter their enclosure. The baboons leap and swing between humans, check our hair for nits and chase either other around the enclosure. It’s great fun to watch and interactive with them.

N/a’an ku sê Wildlife Sanctuary – Carnivore Feeding Tour (Day 2)

After lunch, we head off on our afternoon “carnivore feeding tour”. Over the course of this drive we see older (adult) baboons, caracals, lions, cheetahs, African wild dogs and leopards which are fed by one of the guides. The first animals we stop and feed are the adult male baboons; they are in a large, fenced enclosure.

Next is a pair of cheetahs, who take a while before they appear. One eventually shows up, followed by the second one a few minutes later.

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A leopard is fed next: even with a solid fence between us, you can feel the power of this animal.

Smaller and slightly less intimidating is the caracal. It’s quickly transformed from a placid creature to a snarling cat when provoked. Famous for their impressive leaps into the air, where they’re capable of catching birds in flight, they also have amazing ears. The caracal uses 20 muscles to independently control each of it’s large ears, which act as super-sensitive parabolic sound antennas.

Speaking of ears, the African wild dog also has large rounded ears that allows them to pick up the minutest of sounds. The wild dog is one of Africa’s most effective predators, having an 80% success rate with hunts (higher than the 30% kill rate of lions), although they are critically endangered with about 5,000 left in the wild.

Last but not least is the king of the jungle (or desert, in our case)…  like the leopard earlier, both the female and male lions exude power and instill fear. It’s a little unsettling to hear the male lion roar, even from the safety of being behind a high fence.

It’s been a long and hot afternoon, but with a couple of hours of daylight left there’s time for the kids to enjoy a last swim, and to observe some of the animals around the gorge.

N/a’an ku sê to Okonjima (Day 3)

We’re leaving N/a’an ku sê today, after breakfast. There’s a few more animal sightings on the short distance between our cabin and the main lodge.

Our trip today takes us back through Windhoek, and then up the B1 (or Trans Kalahari highway). It’s about 330km, but mostly on sealed roads where we make good time, until the last section where our instructions ensure we don’t get lost: “…keep following the road to the Lodge, through three gates. At the Thorn Tree and Ant Mound turn left and over the river bed and final gate up the hill to the Lodge”!

Okonjima Game Reserve

Overall rating: 5/5.
Food: 4/5. Set menu for dinner. Amazing omelettes cooked on the BBQ for breakfast.

Family friendly:  4/5. Large “View room” in Plains Camp, with two double beds
Scenery: 4/5.
Activities 5/5: Leopard and cheetah game drives, self-guided bushwalks

Situated halfway between Windhoek and Etosha National Park, the 55,000 acre Okonjima Game Reserve is known for its cheetah and leopard safaris. Home of the AfriCat Foundation, Okonjima rehabilitates cheetahs, hyenas and leopards. On entering the reserve, there are signs warning visitors not to leave their vehicle.

Even before we reach the lodge, in time for a late lunch, we’ve seen a couple of jackals by the road, and outside the main lodge area there’s a pair of warthogs in the water.

Okonjima Leopard Drive (Day 3)

Our first activity is a leopard drive: we’re trying to locate one (or more) of the rehabilitated “big cats” that are somewhere on the 55,000 acres. The good news is that they all have radio collars. The bad news is that the accuracy is somewhat limited, and the leopards are very good at hiding. Gideon, our guide, drives to a point that overlooks a large section of the reserve, and brings out an antenna. After pointing the antenna in various directions, he confidently points to a spot in the distance, and we head off down the steep track from the top of the escarpment to the valley below.

En-route to our leopard, we stop to look at a Damara dik dik, Namibia’s smallest antelope, and spot a solitary giraffe grazing on an acacia tree.

And we’re in luck… our eagle-eyed guide spots the leopard, almost hidden behind long grass. Even after we manoeuvre closer, it’s still very hard to spot the leopard – although it’s keeping a wary eye on us.

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We spend a good half an hour watching the leopards – after spotting the initial male leopard, we see there’s also a second (female) leopard. Although the fact that it’s “radio tracked” feels a bit like we’re cheating, it’s still been hard to find the elusive cats! Not far from our leopard and oblivious to its presence is a lone mountain zebra (which is distinguished from the Plains zebra as its stripes end on their flanks, leaving their stomachs white).

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Nearby is a confusion of blue wildebeest, one of the most unique species of antelope that has been described as being “created from the spare parts of different animals”!

A sundowner ends our first Namibian safari, before we head back for dinner.

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Okonjima Cheetah Drive (Day 4)

A new day and a different cat… it’s an early morning start as we leave the lodge, this time in search of a cheetah.

Not far from the lodge, we spot two black-backed jackals and a baby kudu.

There’s lots of birdlife around, too. A purple roller and double-banded sandgrouse are among our early morning sightings.

There are hundreds of red-billed quelea, also known as the red-billed weaver, which fly around in large flocks. Referred to as “Africa’s most hated bird”, the average quelea bird can eat about 10 grams of grain per day, and a flock of two million can eat as much as 20 tons of grain in a single day. This makes them the most abundant bird in the world and also the most destructive, with the ability to decimate fields across Africa.

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We see my favourite bird, the flying chili-pepper, or red-billed hornbill, in a tree, as well as African Barred Owl.

A dik dik urinates on the side of the track:  they drink very little water and to make the most of every drop, they excrete the driest excrement and most concentrated urine of any hooved animal.

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Another bird, the red-necked spurfowl is seen, which is generally shy and wary.

We still haven’t see a cheetah, but after a brief sweep with the antenna, a few minutes later we’re a few metres away from a pair of cheetahs.

They seem surprisingly easy to find after the more elusive leopard yesterday: our guide explains that they seek exposed, high ground where they have a good view of their surroundings.

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After observing the cheetahs for a while – they don’t seem to mind us getting fairly close – we drive a short distance back to the camp. On the way back we see a dik dik,  a small antelope, a korrie bustard in full flight and a Grey Chanting Goshawk, perched high up in a tree.

After our morning drive, while the rest of the family has lunch, I head off to do the Giraffe Walk. It’s very hot and I don’t see a lot of wildlife. The well-marked walk does go the edge of the escarpment, providing views over the reserve and surrounding mountains.

Okonjima Leopard Drive #2 (Day 4)

We re-group in the afternoon for our second leopard drive, as we search for more of the leopards that are on the reserve.

We see less animals today – a few giraffes. And a number of termite mounds, some well over two metres high.

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This time, however, we’re not successful…  We know we are very close to the leopard, from the radio signal. We can see a recently-killed warthog, and our guide assures us the leopard will be keeping a very close eye on his dinner – and on us. But despite our best efforts we don’t even see a glimpse of the leopard, who is hidden in thick scrub. While it’s a little disappointing, it makes yesterday’s sighting more meaningful. It reminds us while we are on a reserve, there’s still no guarantees about spotting the wild animals!

We see a few more zebras as the sun starts to set, and we find a spot for our sun downers.

Okonjima to Ongava (Day 5)

After breakfast and a last look at the animals visiting the waterhole behind the lodge, we’re on the road again.

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We are heading further north on the paved B1 highway, covering a distance of about 230km – a fairly easy driving day.

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Andersson’s Camp, Ongava

Overall rating: 5/5.
Food: 4/5. Set menu for dinner. 

Family friendly:  4/5. Two separate cabins separated by a short path. Ideal for families with older children.
Scenery: 4/5. Some variety of scenery, but the animals are the main attraction
Activities 6/5: Game drives within Ongava reserve and Etosha National Park. Game viewing at the lodge waterhole (which also has a hide)

Andersson’s Camp is located on the famous Ongava concession, a private nature reserve that borders Etosha National Park. Surrounded by plains teeming with wildlife, and situated close to the largest saltpan in Africa, the family-friendly Andersson’s Camp takes its name from Charles Andersson, a Swedish explorer who first ‘discovered’ the Etosha Pan.

A resurrected farmstead forms the main lodge, fronting onto a thriving waterhole with an underground hide for wildlife viewing and photography. We have two separate, raised tents; there are 20 tents in total, so it’s a relatively small camp – smaller than the last two we’ve stayed at. While we sit in the lodge and are given an introduction to the camp, we watch an incredible procession of animals visiting the waterhole. A herd of impala take turns to drink.

Next is a gemsbok or oryx, which approaches warily, before drinking.

Half an hour later, a pair of zebras turn up.

The other amazing spectacle around the waterhole are the scaly feathered finches; they are also known as  “Baardmannetjie”, the Afrikaans name that translates to “little man with a beard”. Common in the drier parts of Southern Africa, a huge flock of these small birds sits in a tree by the waterhole, before the entire flock flies down to the water. This happens every couple of minutes, and is quite a mesmerizing sight!

The other option for those that aren’t interested in watching the ebb and flow of the waterhole is a swim in the pool, which overlooks the plain behind the camp!

Andersson’s Camp – Ongava Drive (Day 5)

After watching the animals for a while, we set off at 5pm for our afternoon drive. We’re in search a pride of lions that’s been spotted for the last few days… but first we see if we can spot some cheetahs that have been moving across the reserve. We spot them fairly quickly, but there’s already a couple of vehicles watching them so we have to observe from a distance until we can move a bit closer.

As we try and get closer, disaster strikes as our 4WD sinks into a deep rut! We’re stuck until one of the other Ongava safari vehicles comes to the rescues us, towing us out. We finally get a bit closer to the cheetahs – a mother with three cubs – but they remain partly hidden in the scrub.

After this initial stop, we have a fairly long drive – we see a zebra and giraffe, and a few impala, as we drive west across the large reserve.

Rather unexpectedly, as we take a short-cut between two 4WD tracks, we stop right in front of a black rhinoceros. Normally most active during the night, the black rhino tends to be solitary in the wild and forages on leafy plants, branches, shoots, thorny wood bushes, and fruit. The species overall is classified as critically endangered, and from an estimated 65,000 black rhinos in 1970, there are now fewer than 2,500 left (in pockets in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Kenya, Namibia, and Tanzania). Poaching has been the primary reason for their decline, with their horns worth up to $65,000 a kilogram!

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We watch the rhino for a while. It’s not particularly bothered by us as it munches away, gradually moving along the track in the search for more food.

We continue on our drive west, with the landscape becoming more open.

Two hours after we’ve left, we reach an artificial waterhole – and a pride of fourteen lions.

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Some lions are drinking, others are playing and a couple play-fighting on the top of a nearby hill.. we watch them for a while as they interact with each other.

Away from the rest of the pride and just visible in the long grass, is the adult male.

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We need to get back before it’s dark: we’ve covered about 30km over two hours to get to the lions. After about 20 minutes of lion-viewing, we need to start heading back, with a quick sundowner stop en-route to camp.

Andersson’s Camp – Etosha Drive (Day 6)

Today is going to be a LONG drive… we’re heading into Etosha National Park, to the north of Ongava Reserve. Etosha is considered to be one of the best game parks in Southern Africa. It encloses a vast saltpan that becomes an immense, shallow lake in rainy periods, attracting great numbers of flamingos and other water birds. The open plains are home to tens of thousands of animals with large herds of springbok, gemsbok, zebra, wildebeest, elephant and, of course, the predators – particularly cheetah and lion.

The saltpan, shimmering white for most of the time, was once the inland delta of the Kunene River, whose course was changed millions of years ago. It left behind a salt encrusted barren, shallow depression, which only becomes a giant lake after very good rainfall. The legendary origin of the pan is that the Heikum San people who inhabited the area were raided and all but the women were brutally murdered. One woman was so upset at the savage death of her child, that her tears formed an enormous lake. As the lake evaporated, it left the salt from her tears as a saltpan.

We have breakfast as the sun rises, and watch some of the animals around the waterhole at the camp.

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The guinea fowl keep a watchful eye on the jackal, who’s more interested in having a drink than eating.

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There are birds everywhere – the finches have begun their never-ending swarming between the trees and the waterhole, and a series of larger birds cross the morning sky.

We’re off at 8:15am. The gates to the park open at sunrise, but there’s often a very long queue to get in, so we’ll get there a bit later and hopefully avoid a long wait. On the way to the main road and the gate to Etosha, we stop at a recent cheetah kill within the Ongava reserve. Although the cheetahs have moved on, and the jackals are now cleaning up what’s left of the impala.

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They’ve done a pretty thorough job removing what the cheetahs have left behind.

We’re back on the road after this stop; it takes us about 15min to get through Anderson’s Gate – there’s about ten cars in front of us, and we need to provide passport details as well as paying the entry fee. This is part of an effort to prevent poaching – earlier in the year seven rhino carcasses were discovered in Etosha, having been killed by poachers.

Our first stop within Etosha is the Ombika waterhole, which is the southern-most source water of water in the park. We can’t get as close to the water as we do later in the day (so it’s not as good for photography), but the amount of animals in and around the waterhole is staggering.

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It’s hard to do justice to the sight of so many animals… there are many zebras, both in the waterhole and around it.

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Giraffes come and go (they are attracted to the Catophractes alexandri and Acacia nebrownii flowers in Spring), as do oryx and impala. We don’t see lions, although they do frequent this waterhole.

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We could stay here and watch the animals for hours, but our guide explains there’s a lot more to see and we need to keep moving!

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We haven’t yet reached Okaukuejo, the most popular rest camp inside the Etosha National Park and the administrative center for the park, as we continue to spot animals along the road.

At Okaukuejo, we stop to pay for permits at the office (it’s a two-step process – we collected our park entrance permit at the Anderson Gate and then pay for the park fees at the Okaukeujo Tourist Office). There’s a total of 102 chalets with five different types of accommodation within Okaukuejo, and a popular floodlit waterhole that attracts a wide variety of animals. If you book far ahead to stay here, I’d highly recommend a couple of  nights here, with a combination of guided tours and self-driving around the vast park.

We don’t stay here long, with our next stop the Nebrownii waterhole, named after the water-thorn acacia (Acacia nebrownii) which grows in thickets to the west. Created in 1992 to relieve the animal grazing pressure around Okaukuejo, the borehole attracts elephants, rhinos, lions and hyenas. The first animals we see are hundreds of springbok on the flat and open plans surrounding the waterhole.

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As we get closer, we see a pair of lions; the female lion heads to one of the culverts on the main road, which are favoured as dens by lions and hyenas, while the male lion drinks from the waterhole.

This is one of the advantages of being with a guide, who correctly predicts the male lion will shortly follow his mate. We leave the waterhole viewing area, and get a prime position on the side of the road, as the male lion walks across the plain directly towards us, to the culvert.

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While we don’t see any hyenas at the waterhole, shortly after leaving we spot one from the road, walking parallel to us in the distance. The spotted hyena is a rather ugly and menacing animal. While generally regarded as scavengers, the spotted hyena may kill as many as 95% of the animals they eat (the striped hyena being more of a scavenger). A study done by Duke University found that hyenas have a frontal cortex on par with primates, and a captive pair of hyenas performed better at problem-solving and social cooperation than chimpanzees (12 Wild Facts about Hyenas).

A bit further on and slightly smaller (and less menacing) is the double-banded courser, which is widely distributed across southern Africa and lives and breeds in flat, stony or gravelly, semi-desert terrains.

Our next destination is the small Kapupuhedi waterhole, which attracts animals during the dry season as it offers good grazing. There are not many animals here today, but the attraction is the view over white Etosha saltpan in the background, which seems to stretch forever.

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Wandering through the grassland in front of the saltpan is a kori bustard, one of the world’s heaviest flying birds (although it is reluctant to fly unless in serious danger), and the largest of all bustards.

Watching us pass is a yellow mongoose, which lives in colonies of up to 20 individuals in a permanent underground burrow complex.

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The next waterhole is Aus, its name is derived either from the Nama word meaning bitter-tasting bush, or the Hai||om word meaning ‘spring’ or ‘salt water’. There are not many animals near the waterhole when we arrive.

Just as we reach the next waterhole, Olifantsbad (Afrikaans for ‘elephant’s bath’), a herd of elephants arrive, crossing the road as they leave the waterhole.

We are fairly close to the elephants as they pass us, and the younger male expresses his displeasure with our presence.

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Once the elephants have left, the waterhole is busy with kudu and impala drinking – but no “big game”. We have a quick look before continuing.

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Our final stop is the Gemsbokvlakte, an Afrikaans name meaning “the plain of the gemsbok”. It’s a relatively small, artificial pond that’s obviously a popular spot, with many impala taking advantage of the permanent water.

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Soon after, a dazzle of zebras take their turn drinking.

Then, our guide points out a herd of elephants in the distance, making a direct line for us (or rather, the waterhole).

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It’s an amazing and majestic sight as they get gradually closer, in a formation that protects the younger calves who are in the middle.

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They pass almost directly in front of us.

Finally they reach the water, where the other animals make some space (not that they have much choice!).

It’s now 1:30pm and getting pretty hot in our open safari vehicle… we reluctantly head back to the lodge for lunch.

We’ve seen far more than we expected, having covered 120km over six hours – and we would have been happy staying the rest of the day in the park. We had (briefly) contemplated a self-drive option, which would have meant we had air-conditioning and could have gone a bit further into the park. But going in the safari vehicle meant we saw a lot more and often were in a much better “position” as the guide knew where the animals would go – and photography is far easier from an open safari vehicle.

Andersson’s Camp – Around the Lodge (Day 6)

We’ve got most of the afternoon free before our late afternoon drive, so we take advantage of the camp waterhole  – and the salt lick – which have a constant procession of visitors!

The underground hide, as well as being much cooler, offers a different perspective of the visiting animals. A kudu wanders down for a drink, approaching very warily; despite  being very quiet in the hide, the animals can sense the presence of someone from a fair distance.

The “waves” of finches are also even more impressive from the hide, as they take off (and land) only a few metres away from the opening.

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Next is a giraffe pair, also approaching warily,  followed by a couple more, looking very awkward as they drink.

As the giraffes depart, a trio of zebras take their place at the waterhole.

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Many birds flitter around the camp: the African red-eyed bulbul, a common bird distinguished by its orange eye rings and the crimson-breasted shrike.

Meanwhile, the kids enjoy a swim and Elbey, one of the staff, offers to do our daughter’s hair in a traditional African style!

Andersson’s Camp – Ongava Drive #2 (Day 6)

After our very long morning drive in Etosha, we’re ready for an afternoon drive… this time we’re in the Ongava reserve again, looking for cheetahs or leopards. Our first sightings are a sandgrouse and a lone Plains zebra.

I’ve asked if we can detour via the cheetah kill we’d seen the previous day, which is not far from camp. It’s incredible how, within 48 hours, the impala has been completely stripped – there’s nothing left but bone.

We pass by the old (now disused) cattle ramp used when Ongava was a working farm, before being converted to a wildlife reserve.

No “big cats” so far, but a few more birds – the Spotted Thick-knee, which can be difficult as it hunts on the ground, a purple roller and a red-billed hornbill.

Although we’ve visited a few waterholes, we haven’t see many big animals this afternoon. After the morning’s feast of animals in Etosha we’re not too disappointed, as we enjoy a sun downer at the end of a long day.

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The day is not finished though… as we relax outside over dinner, my wife (somehow) manages to spot an almost-invisible cheetah that’s crept down to the waterhole. Shortly after this, a family of white rhinoceroses turn up (we also saw some on the previous evening, but didn’t get any photos).

Andersson’s Camp to Camp Kipwe (Day 7)

Today we have fairly long drive, as we head west toward the coast. It’s just over 300km in distance, but the majority of the route is on unsealed roads. We farewell the staff – and the camp birds – after breakfast and we’re on the road by 10am.

Just outside the entrance to Etosha, we stop to buy some local crafts made by the nomadic Himba people, who are descendants of a group of Herero herders who fled into the remote north-west of Namibia after being displaced by the Nama. Hairstyle and jewellery are very important for the Himba, indicating the age and the social status of each person within the community.

The first 130km is on sealed road and we make good time to Khorixas on the C38 and C39.

From Khorixas we’re on unsealed roads, and although we are heading towards the coast it gets increasingly dry and desolate. We’re now in Damaraland, one of the most scenic areas of Namibia that comprises plains and grassland, massive granite koppies and deep gorges.

Camp Kipwe, Damaraland

Overall rating: 5/5.
Food: 5/5. Great food with 4-5 courses. Service sometimes a bit slow.

Family friendly:  5/5. Kids get a safari tent that adjoins the main bungalow
Scenery: 6/5. Spectacular and varied scenery, and an awesome sundowner location
Activities 5/5: Guided and self-guided nature walks, elephant nature drives, Twyfelfontein excursion (Burnt Mountain, Organ Pipes, Bushman petrogylphs)

We reach Camp Kipwe at about 3:30pm – it’s taken us a bit over five hours – and we’re happy to get out of the car! Nestled in granite rocks, with sweeping views across the Aba Huab valley, Camp Kipwe feels a bit like a hidden base in a James Bond movie!

Accommodation is in igloo-shaped double bungalows, each with an outdoor en-suite bathroom with a shower and a private veranda that overlooks the surrounding plains. The kids are excited as they get their own adjoining tent!

Although we might have been able to (just) make the afternoon drive, everyone’s tired – and the kids want to have a swim – so we have a relaxed afternoon. Well, most of us do. Although there’s no guided nature walk offered, the open landscape dotted with granite outcrops  is easy to navigate, so I take off on my own, camera and drone in the backpack, for a circular walk around the camp.

Every camp offers a sun downer, the quintessential end to the African day… Camp Kipwe goes one step further with a sunset viewing platform right on top of the granite hill.

Although there’s some low cloud in the sky, it promises to be a spectacular sunset as the sun sets behind the distant mountains range.

And it doesn’t disappoint – the best sun downer location and sunset so far on our trip!

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Camp Kipwe – Nature Drive (Day 8)

The following morning it’s an early, pre-sunrise start on our nature drive, where we head to the dry Huab River in search of the region’s rare and beautiful desert adapted elephant.

We drive at a fairly fast pace on the rough dirt road, admiring the dramatic Damaraland landscape – and wondering how anything can survive out here.

We abruptly stop, about 38km and an hour from camp, and our guide points out elephant footprints and dung. By examining these, he can determine which direction (along the riverbed) the elephants have travelled and approximately how far away they are. The dung is fresh, and the elephants are close!

We veer off the road onto the soft sand of the riverbed – and exactly three minutes later we’re right in front of a small herd of elephants.

Found only in Namibia and Mali, desert adapted elephants are not a separate species or subspecies, but are uniquely adapted to their arid environments. The animals have some morphological differences from savanna elephants, notably thinner bodies and wider feet. They also possess a number of unique behaviors shared by no other African elephants, such as digging wells to purify their drinking water and lying down to sleep. They survive by eating moisture-laden vegetation growing in ephemeral riverbeds and can go several days without drinking water.

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What’s great about this drive is that it’s not at all rushed – we spend over an hour observing the elephants and their behaviour. Our guide, Bradley, is not only passionate but extremely knowledgeable, and as we watch the elephants he tells us about them and answers all of our questions in detail.

We finally leave the elephants, and follow the Huab river-bed to the south, crossing the wide sandy valley to the Abu Huab river to the east. We stop on a small dune for morning tea, with towering sand-covered koppies, or small hills, on both sides of us.

A bit further on we stop at the foot of one of the taller hills, where we race up to the top for views over the surrounding area and the Huab valley.

The Etendeka Mountains can be seen to the north, across the vast and dry plains of the Damaraland.

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We pass through De Riet village, which has an interesting history. In 1974, 800 people and their belongings were relocated over 1000km from their home north of the Augrabies Falls National Park in South Africa, when the area was declared a military training zone. One of the sites that became home to this re-settled community was an old farm near the confluence of the dry Huab and Aba-Huab Rivers called De Riet. Faced with increasingly tough conditions for farming and a drought in the 1980s that reduced the wild game population, the village – along with many others in Damaraland – combined their communal land and agreed on a management plan that allowed the continuation of subsistence farming while supporting conservation. In 1998, a 352 200 hectare conservancy called the Torra Conservancy was registered by the Namibian Government. Recognised as a pioneer at the forefront of community conservation in Namibia, tourism-derived income has grown from zero in 1997 to more than N$1 million in 2003.

We make a small detour from here, further down the Abu Huab River, to where it merges with the (also dry) Huab River. Our guide explains he often fund large game here, and we see a male and female kudu just above the bank of the river.

From here we head back to De Riet, and then follow the Abu Huab river along a very sandy track back to the camp.

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Bradley seems to have developed his own, circular route, that follows both the Huab and Abu Huab rivers and avoids any back-tracking. We cover 104km on the six hour drive, and as well as spending lots of time with the desert-adapted elephants we’ve seem some amazing Damaraland scenery.

Camp Kipwe – Twyfelfontein Drive (Day 8)

The afternoon drive is to the Twyfelfontein rock engravings site and a few other natural formations. Our first stop is an outcrop of volcanic rock called the Organ Pipes, a mass of perpendicular slabs of basalt between 130 and 150 million years old. They were formed as a result of the intrusion of liquid lava into a slate rock formation, which was exposed over time by erosion.

We climb down to the dry riverbed for a closer look; there’s a few other people here but it’s fairly quiet.

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Not far from here is Burnt Mountain, a mountain of maroon, black and charcoal rock formed 120 million years ago when a large sheet of black magma forced its way into carbonaceous shale. Nothing grows in this desolate area. It’s not particularly photogenic, but worth a quick stop; a large sign states “do not climb the mountain” to avoid erosion. Most visitors seem to ignore this sign, and the nearby park officials seem to have no interest in enforcing this.

The real attraction of the area is Twyfelfontein, the most significant rock engraving site in Namibia with over 2,500 engravings found at 17 main sites. The site has been inhabited for 6,000 years, first by hunter-gatherers and later by Khoikhoi herders. Both ethnic groups used it as a place of worship and a site to conduct shamanist rituals.  UNESCO approved Twyfelfontein as Namibia’s first World Heritage Site in 2007.

Twyfelfontein is situated in a valley flanked by the slopes of a sandstone table mountain. It’s estimated that as many as 40,000 people a year visit the site, making it one of the more popular tourist destinations in Namibia – it was by far the busiest place we’ve seen in over a week!

Near the start of the circular trail (which you must do with a guide) is the remains of a farmhouse that was built in the 1940s by David Levin, who named the farm Twyfelfontein (meaning “doubtful fountain” in Afrikaans), as had doubts about the capacity of the spring that was discovered on the slopes of the mountain.

As we continue up the trail, our guide points out the various petroglyphs that can be seen near the path. Some are very obvious, and others are not so easily spotted.

In most cases, the hieroglyphs represent local fauna, such as the easily-recognisable giraffe. But on one rock, there are engravings of animals that never occurred in this area, like a sea lion, penguins, and possibly flamingos, and our guide explains that the hunter-gatherers would have travelled to the coast, more than 100km away. However, a recent  archaeological survey questions this theory, suggesting that the “foreign” animals are in fact rough sketches of animals that did occur at Twyfelfontein. [Source: Wikipedia]

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We’re back by 6pm, just in time to meet Stanley (one of the staff at Camp Kipwe) for a walk up a nearby mountain. We watch the sunset from half-way up the mountain, before returning to camp in time for dinner.

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Camp Kipwe to Swakopmund (Day 9)

Today is our longest driving day: a 452km trip on some of the worst (2WD) roads in Namibia. Our tour company recommended we take a more direct way to Swakopmund, which is to the south of us on the coast, but we’re keen to experience the “Skeleton Coast” and opt for the more challenging route…

Before we leave, I take a last quick look at the view from the top of Camp Kipwe.