Chasing orangutans in Borneo

This was a slightly last-minute trip during the school holidays – a week in Sabah (Borneo) looking at wildlife, and five days at the end relaxing on a tropical island. We booked through Tropical Adventure Tours and Travel, who I’d used before to book a hiking trip to Mulu Caves and Pinnacles (a fantastic three-day adventure). Richard and his team came up with a good itinerary, and were very responsive to our requests to making some variations.

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About Borneo

Borneo is the third largest island in the world, and is shared by three countries: Malaysia (Sabah, Sarawak and Labuan territories) and Brunei are in the north, while Indonesia (Kalimantan) covers 73% of the island to the south. While much of the island, which straddles the equator, consists of rainforest there’s been significant impact to this vegetation by logging and land clearing. Half of the annual global tropical timber acquisition comes from Borneo (source: Wikipedia) and every year palm oil plantations encroach into more natural rainforest areas. Borneo’s economy is predominantly based on agriculture, logging and mining, oil and gas – and ecotourism.

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When to go (and for how long)

In theory… there’s a wet season and a dry season. In reality the weather is very localised and with some areas receiving over four metres of rainfall a year, it’s can rain anytime! Peak season for tourism is May-September, which is the “dry season”, and rainfall tends to be highest  between November and March. In Sabah, rainfall is lower and more evenly spread across the year in the south, compared to the north. We’re there in late April, which is the best time for both the north and south of Sabah.

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Getting there and around

The main airport serving Sabah is Kota Kinabalu (BKI), which has connections within Malaysia as well as Singapore and many other neighbouring countries. On the opposite side of the island is Sandakan (SDK), with daily flights (Air Asia and MAS) to Kuala Lumpur. Flying is the only practical way to get to Borneo, although a few cruises stop at Kota Kinabalu. You’ll need to pass through immigration even if you’re arriving from another Malaysian city – Sabah maintains autonomy on immigration rules and both foreigners and non-Sabah Malaysians are restricted to a stay of 90 days at a time.

Within Sabah we had a minivan with a driver, which is relatively inexpensive and much easier that renting a car. The main roads are all good quality, although plan on achieving an average speed of around 60km/h due to windy roads and the fact you’ll frequently get stuck behind very slow trucks. From Sandakan, it’s also possible (with some Kinabatangan lodges, to travel up the river by boat, rather than going by road).

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The Itinerary

It’s a pretty straightforward itinerary: we fly from KL to Sandakan on the north-east of the island, and then drive across Sabah to Kota Kinabalu on the other side, with a few relaxing days at the end…

  1. Sepilok – close to Sandakan, this is a popular stop to visit the world-famous Sepilok Orang Utan Sanctuary, as well as the Sun Bear Conservation Centre. Definitely worth a day here, or two days so you’ve got some flexibility with the weather.
  2. Kinabatangan River – generally regarded as one of the best places in Malaysia for wildlife it doesn’t disappoint, with loads of birdlife, orangutans, monkeys and the odd crocodile seen onthe morning and afternoon boat cruises. Three days here was perfect.
  3. Kinabalu – a “half-way” stop as we cross the top of the island, with a short walk in Kinabalu Park (this would also be the starting point for the 2D/1N Mt Kinabalu ascent). Unless you’re climbing Kinabalu, skip this if you can.
  4. Kota Kinabalu – An overnight stop before we head out to Gaya Island. In hindsight, we should have gone straight to Gaya Island in the afternoon…
  5. Gaya Island – a relaxing end to the holiday at a beach resort just off the coast (but still lots of activities). Five days here was plenty… three would have been enough, especially given the outrageously high prices on the island!

Trip Highlights and Tips

Some trips make it challenging to identify the “best bits”, with every day bringing a new highlight. This trip consisted more of some amazing experiences between some rather ordinary days. Which is not to say our Borneo trip wasn’t a great holiday, but that in hindsight you could do a few days in Borneo and not miss much.

  • Kinabatangan River:  definitely worth a few days, even if it’s just to make sure you get some good-weather days (we were lucky and had three mostly rain-free days. Our lodge, like many, was fairly basic in terms of food – but you’re coming here for the wildlife. We had a fantastic guide (Aloi), which made the experience even better. We also had a small motorboat (with our guide) to ourselves, so we could tailor what we were looking for and how long we wanted to stay in one spot to get photos. Seeing orangutans in the wild was an amazing experience.
  • Mount Trusmadi hike: Malaysia is great for hiking, if you’re into that kind of thing – and Borneo has some of the highest mountains in Malaysia. I’d climbed Mt Kinabalu before which is the most popular option (and would have been right in the middle of our itinerary), and really enjoyed the quite different challenge and environment of Trusmadi.
  • Gaya Island – the eye-watering prices (for drinks, meals and some of the activities) on Gaya Island detracted from the experience a little. But it’s a nice way to end the holiday, and there is lots to do from hiking to snorkelling to just relaxing by the pool.

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Sepilok

Accommodation: Sepilok Nature Lodge
Overall rating: 5/5
Food: 5/5. Range of local and western foods on the menu; breakfast included.

Family friendly:  5/5. Two bedroom cottage with upstairs lounge room and balcony
Scenery: 4/5. Not a very particularly nice outlook from our hut, and noisy construction nearby on a new road. Communal dining area is really nice, and overlooks a small lake.
Location: 5/5. Walking distance to Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre.

We make our way straight to Sepilok Nature Reserve, a short half hour drive from the Sandakan airport, arriving there late in the afternoon. It’s a 200m walk from reception to our spacious hut, which has two bedrooms and a large bathroom downstairs, while upstairs is a huge informal area and balcony. The bar and dining area overlooks a lake, and has both tables and loungers – a relaxed spot for an evening drink.

Night Hike

The only activity we have time for on our first day is a night hike around Sepilok Nature Lodge, conducted by one of their guides. We see a surprising amount of small creatures – insects, frogs, caterpillars and dragonflys – on our 45min walk.

One of the interesting creatures we see is the giant pill millipede, which rolls itself into a ball when disturbed as a defence against predators.

Orang Utan Sanctuary

Conceived in 1961 and established in 1964 with funding by the Sabah Government, the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre aims to return orphaned, injured or displaced orangutans back to the wild. You can visit two of the three sections: we start with the feeding platform, in a large area where most animals achieve total independence and become integrated into the Sepilok wild orangutan population. (The sanctuary is only open for a couple of hours in the morning and afternoon, so it does get pretty busy.)

It’s a rather miserable and wet day, and clearly the orangutans don’t like the weather either, as they try and use leaves to shelter from the rain!

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Next stop is the ‘Outdoor Nursery’ where freedom is increased and dependence on food and emotional support is decreased. There are two viewing areas within a modern centre, which overlook the nursery. While shooting through the glass windows is not great, at least we’ve got a temporary respite from the rain.

We spend an hour at the sanctuary despite the inclement weather – it’s fascinating to watch the orangutans, who we’re told share 97% of their DNA sequence with humans.

Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre

The smallest bears in the world (found only in Southeast Asia), sun bears are threatened by forest degradation, illegal hunting for bear parts and poaching to obtain young cubs for pet trade. The Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) is a sun bear rescue and rehabilitation facility which has around 40 rescued ex-captive sun bears. It’s located right next to the Orang Utan Sanctuary.

We quickly spot a couple of the bears grooming each other from the observation ramps and platforms high above the forest floor.

Another relaxes in a nearby tree, changing poses a few times but never leaving his spot.

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Another sun bear gracefully climbs a tree as we’re leaving the sanctuary: they have re large and naked soles are naked, thought to be an adaptation for climbing trees, and large, curved and pointed claws.

Rainforest Discovery Centre

Our last stop for the day is the Rainforest Discovery Centre… it’s now nearing midday and quite hot and humid (but it’s stopped raining), so only Luke and I do a short circular walk with our guide.

There are over 20km of walking trails, which are well marked.

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We only do about 3km, including the 347m-long canopy walkway. It would be a great spot for bird-watching in the morning or evening, but there’s not much wildlife of any sort around at midday.

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We also climb two of the observation towers, which provide another perspective of the surrounding forest.

There’s many signs pointing out different plants, including cocoa seeds (below), figs, and belian trees (the heaviest, hardest and most valuable timber of Borneo).

We head back for lunch at the Orang Utan Sanctuary and to hopefully visit again in the afternoon now that the rain has stopped… but right on cue, just before the doors re-open at 2:30pm, it starts pouring again. We call it a day.

Orang Utan Sanctuary… again

We make one final trip the following morning to the Orang Utan Sanctuary, with the skies now clear. This time we start at the outdoor nursery, which is much busier than it was on the previous day. We watch one of the adult orangutans eating and playing.

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A juvenile orangutan is also partaking in the morning feed.

As well as a long-tailed macaque.

After a short stay in the outdoor nursery, we head to the outdoor area. We get there early to stake out a good spot near the feeding platform. No sign of any orangutans, but a number of macaques leap onto the roof of the viewing platform and wait expectantly for food.

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No orangutans show up today, but there’s quite a show from the macaques, and we spend close to 45 minutes watching them eat, groom and play.

We reluctantly leave the macaques, as our minibus is waiting out the front to take us to our next stop…

Sepilok to Kinabatangan River

We’re picked up from the Orang Utan Sanctuary for the 2-hour drive to Kinabatangan River (I find out later it’s possible, with some lodges, to go by road back to Sepilok and then take a fast boat up the Kinabatangan River). Traveling through what seems like endless palm trees, it’s a reminder of how much jungle has been bulldozed to make way for palm oil plantations.

Kinabatangan River

Overall rating: 3/5.
Food: 2/5. Set menu for dinner – generally one chicken and one seafood plus rice. A small range of beers and soft drinks for sale. No bar.

Family friendly:  3/5. The family cabins have a double bed and two single beds alongside each other. 
Activities 5/5: Morning and evening cruises on the river, night hikes and jungle hikes.

The Borneo Natural Sukau Bilit Resort is located right by the Kinabatangan River, the second longest river in Malaysia (560km in length).  While the upper areas of the river have been significantly impacted by logging, towards the coast the river and surrounding lowlands support a variety of birdlife and provide a sanctuary for saltwater crocodiles, Borneo’s indigenous proboscis monkeys, Bornean orangutan and Asian elephants. (The Kinabatangan “Big 5” consists of the Pygmy Elephant, Orang Utan, Proboscis Monkey, Crocodiles and Rhinoceros Hornbill.)

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The huts are small but comfortable, and the food pretty basic. But we’re here for the wildlife, and we have a fantastic guide – Aloi – for the three days that we’re here.

Our first Evening Cruise

We’re excited about our first trip down the river – and have no idea what we’ll see! The fruit on the trees overhanging the river attract many animals, although we’re hoping we’ll see something more exciting than a squirrel!

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I take the first few photos of the Great Egret – a graceful but common bird along the river.

We soon see our first macaque monkeys along the river, which become a frequent sighting over the next few days.

A cluster of boats indicates a more significant animal sighting…

…fairly close to the river bank is a family of orang utans, feeding on fruit and ignoring the small flotilla of sightseeing boats below.

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We watch them for a while, before heading further downstream. Our guide spots a a small blue eared kingfisher, perched over the river.

More wildlife starts to emerge as it gets later in the day, and we start seeing a lot more macque monkeys on the ground and in the trees.

A small crocodile eyes us passing by.

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Finally, with the light fading, we see the human-like proboscis monkey, one of the largest monkey species native to Asia.

It’s now starting to get dark, and with the sun setting we head back up the river to our lodge – a great first day of sightseeing on the Kinabatangan River!

Morning Cruise

It’s a very foggy morning as we set out at 6am on our second day at the Borneo Natural Sukau Bilit Resort, this time heading upstream. At one point hundreds of birds circle our boat, flying low along the river.

On this trip we’re in search of birds – we see the egret, again. One of my favourites, even though it’s rather common.

And then we spot what we’re really looking for: the Rhinoceros Hornbill.  A large species of forest hornbill that can live for up to 35 years, it is the state bird of Sarawak and Malaysia’s National Bird.

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The morning ctuise is only an hour and a half or so, and with day warming up and the fog lifting we head back to the lodge.

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Oxbow Lake Jungle Walk

After lunch, I take the optional “jungle hike” to a nearby oxbow lake with our guide, Aloi: it’s a short boat trip across the Kinabatangan River, followed by a 3.5km (return hike).

I’m not sure whether the “lake” actually has a name: it’s formed by when a wide bend in the main stem of a river is cut off, creating a free-standing body of water (in Australia, it would  be a  billabong!)

I’ve swapped my shoes for gumboots (rented for the princely sum of RM5 / US$2 for the duration of my stay), and I’m happy I did. The many muddy sections would have sucked normal shoes off my feet!

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There’s not a lot of wildlife, but we do see a few proboscis monkeys in the trees above the trail.

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It takes us about half an hour to reach the lake, which features a modern toilet (not really what I was expecting in the middle of the jungle) and a platform that extends over the water.

It would be a great spot for bird watching, if you came early or late in the day, and even in the middle of the day it’s pleasant to sit under the shelter and look over the lake. And observe a few leeches seeking their prey.

We walk back the same way, meeting a larger group coming towards us who are doing the same hike that we’ve just done.

Another Afternoon Cruise

We’re looking for birds on this afternoon’s cruise… Our first sighting is a collared kingfisher, which is very common bird in Malaysian mangrove forests.

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We spot a troop of proboscis monkeys – although listed as endangered, they’re impossible not to spot along the river (and equally impossible not to stop and observe them each time)!

A bit further on, we get quite close to the majestic Rhinoceros Hornbill, the only bird member of the “Kinabatangan Big Five”.

Between our bird sightings we see a macaque monkeys perched above the river.

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Our next bird is the oriental pied hornbill – it’s one of the smallest and most common of the Asian hornbills, but it’s still a fairly large and impressive bird.

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At the other end of the scale (in terms of size) is the diminutive blue-eared kingfisher. It’s distribution is widespread, although it’s not a common bird. Fortunately for us it sits very still for us as it patiently eyes the river below for food.

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We spot a few more birds as the light begins to fade.

Our last bird of the day is the white bellied fish eagle – we see a few of these, always very high up in the trees along the river, and not easy to photograph.

As we head back down (or maybe it’s up) the river to the lodge, we stop briefly as we see about 20 proboscis monkeys foraging in a single tree – a nice end to another successful sightseeing afternoon.

Our last Morning cruise

It’s a bit less misty than the previous day, as we head out just before sunrise.

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A group of macaque monkeys groom each other on a branch just above the river.

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We spot a few different birds – a brown-winged kingfisher and a Black and Red Broadbill – and another crocodile that’s lurking on the riverbank.

Not a huge number of sightings, but the morning cruise is always much shorter than the afternoon/evening cruise, and we did spot a few birds we hadn’t seen before.

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And our final Afternoon Cruise

We’re determined to see orangutans again on our last cruise, and we ask our guide to look out for them on an overcast and wet afternoon.

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Our first sighting is a crested snake (or serpent) eagle, widespread in forested habitats across tropical Asia.

…and another Rhinoceros Hornbill, as magnificent in flight as it is in perched in a tree.

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Another eagle, this time a fish eagle.

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A squirrel munching on fruit in a tree means there might be some larger primates around… but in this tree, it’s a macaque monkey eating fruit.

The next tree has a very large number of proboscis monkeys. Still no orangutans.

Finally, with the light fading we find a troupe of orangutans. It’s hard to get good photos, but we stay for a while and watch these majestic animals as they  eat and play. t’a a nice end to our Kinabatangan River stay.

Kinabatangan River to Kinabalu

We leave in the morning for our trip across the top of Borneo to Kota Kinabalu. After initially re-tracing our steps through palm plantations, we climb though more natural vegetation.

There’s a lunch and toilet stop at Telupid: the roadside “cafe” has very basic Malaysian food, none of which looked particularly appetizing. But we got some snacks and drinks and stretched our legs. From here it’s another 90min or so to Sabah Tea – which would have been a much better option for lunch.

Sabah Tea is the main tea company in the state of Sabah and the largest tea producer in Borneo. There’s a nice cafe/restaurant, offering food as well as the option to try many of the teas produced here. A tour of the factory is also available, which is conducted by a local guide on demand, and provides an interesting and interactive demonstration of how the tea leaves are processed (if possible, best to do tour in the morning as the factory is more active then). Located in the foothills of Mount Kinabalu, there would a nice view of the mountain – on a clear day!

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Sabah Tea is also one of the sites commemorating the Sandakan Death Marches, a series of forced marches from Sandakan to Ranau which resulted in the deaths of 2,345 Allied prisoners of war (widely considered to be the single worst atrocity suffered by Australian servicemen during WWII).

From here it’s another hour to Kinabalu Pine Resort, near Kinabalu National Park. We arrive mid-afternoon, but with very low cloud we can’t see the mountain that’s in front of us.

Kinabalu Park

Accommodation: Kinabalu Pine Resort
Overall rating: 4/5
Food: 4/5. Good choice of food in the restaurant and big portions. No alcohol served.

Family friendly:  5/5. Two adjoining rooms with shared balcony
Scenery: 4/5. All the cabins have a view of Kinabalu (when it’s clear) across the main road and valley
Location: 3/5. Short drive to Kinabalu Park – but if you can, stay inside the park where there’s a range of accommodation options

The following day we wake to a clear morning, so I walk down to the main road to take some photos of Mt Kinabalu (or Gunung Kinabalu). The massive granite mountain fills the skyline in the distance

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Even from here, you can clearly see Laban Rata, the resthouses located at 3,272m above sea level, and the route that continues up the ridge towards the summit.

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Kinabalu Park

We’re not climbing Kinabalu today 😦 although it would be a perfect day for it… but we have got time for a short circuit in the Mt. Kinabalu Botanical Garden of Kinabalu Park. The botanical garden is well signposted, but unlike the Kinabalu summit trail which has 100+ trekkers every day, we have this secluded garden to ourselves.

Kinabalu Park has one of the richest assemblage of flora in the world, with an estimate of 5,000 to 6,000 vascular plant species. The botanical garden showcases a a number of the more exotic plant species, although it feels very much like a natural forest. There’s numerous colourful berries, including the areca or betel nut (bottom right).

A nursery area has some rarest orchids and pitcher plants of Kinabalu Park; some are in a fenced area and some “less-rare” species are right by the path.

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Just for good measure, we also observe some local fauna…

I’d recommend going one of the guided walks if you’re there at the right time… you’ll probably learn a lot more. But even the kids (sort of) enjoyed spending an hour walking around the “garden”.

Kinabalu to Kota Kinabalu

We continue on from Kinabalu Park after our walk – it’s only about two hours to Kota Kinabalu. (We would have preferred to go straight to KK without the Kinabalu Park stop-over, but this didn’t seem possible. We had a different driver from Kinabalu Park, so maybe this location is the most convenient to swap drivers.)

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It’s all downhill from here, with some sections of winding road as we descend from the cool foothill of Mt Kinabalu at around 1500m above sea level to the coast.

Kota Kinabalu

Accommodation: Le Meridien
Overall rating: 5/5
Food: 5/5. Not normally a fan of buffets, but the lunch buffet was superb, at a reasonable price. Room service menu pretty standard.

Family friendly:  5/5. Two adjoining and interconnecting rooms
Scenery: 3/5. Room looked over the village. Ask for ocean-facing room if this is important
Location: 5/5. One of the better-positioned hotels; easy walking to all the main attractions

We arrived around 2pm, in time for a late lunch… and immediately noticed how much warmer it is here, compared to higher elevation of Kinabalu Park!

After checking-in and a late lunch, no-one was too keen on leaving the air-conditioning of the hotel room, so I went for a walk up to the Signal Hill Observatory. The hotel staff weren’t particularly helpful with directions, so I followed Google Maps which took me up via the road… I discovered having reached the top that there are in fact a set of stairs that provide a steeper but more direct route to the bottom (they start near the Community Centre on Jalan Dewan).

In any case, it really wasn’t worth it other than getting some exercise. The lookout has mixed reviews on TripAdvisor but I think “redharry” nails it: “Short but steep walk to essentially a café with big balconies. Reasonable view of the city and a simple café”. The cafe does at least mean you can get a cold drink after the steep walk up.

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Kota Kinabalu is famous for its sunsets, so we head to the pool and bar, which overlooks the South China Sea, in anticipation. Unfortunately, the weather is not so obliging!

It’s a bit of a non-event in the end… just a touch of orange in the distance, suggesting what might have been!

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Gaya Island (Pulau Gaya)

Accommodation: Gaya Island Resort
Overall rating: 4/5
Food: 4/5. Quality is amazing, but prices are eye-wateringly expensive!

Family friendly:  5/5. Two adjoining and interconnecting rooms
Scenery: 3/5. Nice view, but obstructed by trees (some rooms have more panoramic views)
Activities: 5/5. Loads of things to do – kayaking, snorkelling trips, hiking, nature talks and more…. a few are free; most require additional payment.
Location: 4/5. Speedboat from KK; regular transfers but there’s a charge for additional transfers if you want to visit the mainland during your stay.

We set-off the following day to Gaya Island, a short speedboat transfer from the Kota Kinabalu main jetty. Gaya Island, which is the largest island in the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park, occupies an area of 15 km² with an elevation of up to 300m.

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As we pass the eastern shore of Gaya Island, the illegal Filipino colony called Kampung Lok Urai comes into view. The stilt houses support a 6,000 floating population of largely Filipinos: it’s also considered a dangerous, high crime or “no-go” area by the police and locals.

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There are three resorts on Gaya Island, which is the largest island in the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park. It’s hard to tell from our research which one is the “best” one – they all look pretty good from the reviews. We’ve chosen Gaya Island Resort and booked directly with the resort – it seemed the best option; the other two resorts had more mixed reviews on TripAdvisor. The check-in process is personalised and friendly; after a short briefing we’re taken to our rooms, up the hill… The rooms are all located some distance from the main reception, pool and and restaurant area, some a far way up the forested hill. It’s not a problem for us, but you woudn;tThe pool and poolside bar areas are really nice.

We’re happy with our adjoining rooms – there’s a nice view back towards the mainland, although it’s partly obscured by a tree.

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Hike to Tavajan Bay

I get bored rather quickly sitting around at resorts, so while the rest of the family relaxes I head off to explore some of the trails. The resort doesn’t encourage “independent hiking”, so while the start of the trail is easy to find, I’ve no idea where the trail actually goes. Established as Sabah’s first forest reserve in 1923, Pulau Gaya preserves one of the few remaining areas of largely undisturbed coastal dipterocarp forest left in Sabah.

The trail has a major fork about 1km from the start… I follow the left-hand one which heads up to a ridge that seems to follow the ridge along the island. After another kilometre or so, it seems to taper off, and I head back the same way. (I discover a few days later, when reading one of the magazines in our room, that the partly overgrown trail goes all the way to the far end of the island, and has some tricky sections that require rock clambering. A guide is highly recommended for this, and a boat transfer can be organised to avoid returning the same way.)

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Map of Gaya Island (Pulau Gaya) showing walking trails

I take the alternate fork, which I’m guessing will lead to Tavajun Bay, one of the guided walks you can do. This trail is well-defined, but does go up – and down – a bit as it follows the coast, before descending to the beach at Tavajun Bay. This secluded beach is part of Gaya Island Resort: there’s a bar, beach lounges and a regular ferry that takes guests to and from the main resort. I can get a drink here before catching the boat back… but my plan comes undone when I realise I’ve missed the last boat by about half an hour. There’s just a lot of empty beach chairs and monkeys that hanging around the bar area looking for food scraps.

There’s also a wild boar foraging on the beach, which is quite tame and lets me get close for a photo before it runs away

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I’m really not keen to make the three kilometre (or so) trek back to the resort, but I’ve spotted a solitary kayak that’s on the beach. I figure it’s part of the resort, so I “borrow” it for the trip back. It’s a much more enjoyable way to travel!

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Mt Trusmadi Hike

I leave the family behind for a few days to hike up Mt Trusmadi, the second-highest mountain in Malaysia. About six hours by car from Kota Kinabalu, the trek to the summit takes 3 days and 2 nights (this is the longest of the three routes).  A tough but rewarding climb, reaching the peak just before sunrise and being fairly lucky with the weather!
Full hike details
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Fine Dining – at a price!

There’s a few different restaurants in the Gaya Island Resort – we’ve made a booking at Omakase, a Japanese restaurant set over two levels. Upstairs is shabu-shabu, and downstairs is teppanyaki. We’ve gone for teppankayi. It’s fantastic food, but at RM900 for the four of us it’s outrageously expensive! There’s a bottle of Australian wine that’s being being promoted for RM350. It’s a pretty average bottle of wine that retails for about $10 (RM30) in Australia – these kind of ludicrous prices detract a bit from an otherwise great resort.

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Snorkelling at Gaya Island

There’s two snorkelling activities offered by the resort: you can snorkel off the resort beach, but during our stay there were signs warning of jellyfish and advising people not to swim. The snorkelling tours take you by boat to a more sheltered location. We did the tour to the very small Mamutik Island (Pulau Mamutik), about 30min away. We arrive at the main wharf where a small entrance fee is paid (this is part of the activity cost) – and the small beach here is crowded. You can see the relief on everyone’s faces when we leave, dropping anchor on the other side of the island that we have almost to ourselves.

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Another hike to Tavajan Bay

I’d booked the guided hike to Tavajan Bay when we arrived… so I’ve decided I’ll do it again. It’s amazing how much more I see with a guide, who knows where to spot the elusive wildlife.

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After we spot the lizard just off the path, the guide points out three bats that are hanging in a cave nearby.

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We finish at Tajavan Bay again, but this time after a cold drink I catch the boat back to the resort. (It’s a nice beach at Tavajan Bay, with a small bar that serves food and a range of drinks. There’s also an enclosed – and air-conditioned – aquarium, which is staffed by a very engaging and knowledgeable marine biologist (Scott) who talks about the local environment and conversation programs.

Gaya Island kayak tour

Our last day on Gaya Island, and our last activity – a guided kayak trip through  the mangroves. Justin Juhun, Gaya Island Resort’s senior resident naturalist and local conservationist, leads our group of about ten guests.  We paddle a short distance along the coastline from the resort jetty, with Mt Kinabalu visible in the distance.

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After a couple of hundred metres, we head into the mangroves – a narrow channel (this trip is always scheduled for high tide) leads deep into the trees. There’s a chance of seeing monkeys or even an orangutan, although our group is rather noisy and one kayak has a rather inept couple that spends most of their time crashing into trees and needing help to paddle in the right direction!

When we reach the furthest navigable point, we stop while Justin provides an interesting commentary on the mangroves, and the impact of both tourism and natural events on the local environment. As I experienced also on the previous day at the aquarium, Gaya Island Resort seems to take conservation seriously and has some talented and passionate guides that you learn a lot from on the activities.

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Heading home

It’s been a great trip, and a relaxing end… from here, it’s a boat transfer back to Kota Kinabalu and a flight to Singapore, where we have three days before we go home.

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More Information

As with our last trip, we relied on Tropical Adventure Tours and Travel, although we (or to be more precise, my wife) asked for some changes based on the research she did on-line.

We used the Lonely Planet book “Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei” with general planning.

The Web site World Birds was helpful in identifying the many birds photographed at Kinabatangan River.

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)!

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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.

We farewell Stanley, who’s looked after us at Camp Kipwe, and one day will become an excellent nature guide.

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We’re on the road at 10:30am – a bit later than planned – but we have all day to reach our destination. The first part of our trip takes us west to the coast on the C39 road. The condition of the road varies, but some sections are very rough – we’ve been told that the government forgot to renew the contract with the company that grades the roads, so for the last six months there’s been virtually no maintenance. The first section of road is also notorious for shredding tyres!

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There’s almost no cars on the road, which is shared with many different types of traffic. At one point we stop as a herd of goats comes towards us, closely followed by two “herders”.

The road conditions deteriorate, and about an hour into our drive we hear a thumping noise from the car. We pull over, and discover one of the tyres is completely flat. With many more miles of rough road to go we’re a bit nervous about continuing (we only have one spare), but we don’t really have a choice.

A little further on and a cow wanders across the road – it looks rather emaciated. Despite the harsh and dry landscape, 35% of household income in the area we are travelling through (Kunene) is derived from farming, and there are vast farms that are barely economically viable.

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We reach the Springbokwasser (Springbok Water) Gate after two hours, where we register (it’s free) and enter the Skeleton Coast Park. From here we are have 33km left before we reach the coast.

Despite our relative proximity to the ocean, it’s still a completely dry and lifeless landscape. From Springbokwasser Gate (which is still 445m above sea level) we gradually descend to the coast, with the road much better on this section.

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Finally, we reach the coast – we turn left, and follow the coast south for 308km, with Henties Bay (235km to the south) the only town until we reach our destination. This section of road is still gravel, but in good condition.

We are now on the infamous Skeleton Coast, the name coined by after the title of a book chronicling the shipwreck of the Dunedin Star. Well before this, many ships had been wrecked on this hazardous coast, their remains scattered along the beaches (along with the bones from slaughtered whales) and rocky approaches to the shore. “The Skeleton Coast is Africa’s Bermuda Triangle. Here, where the arid Namib Desert air collides with the Benguela, a flow of icy water bearing due North from Antarctica, a blanket of fog sits permanently along the coast, stretching as far as ten miles inland and even further out to sea, rendering navigation impossible, confounding sailors with distinctly untropical temperatures.” (Jeff Dawson describes in ‘Dead Reckoning’, an account of the stranding of the crew of the Dunedin Star in 1942.)

The Skeleton Coast goes from Swakopkund in the south (our destination today) up to the south of Angola). A desolate area, it consists mostly of soft sand occasionally interrupted by rocky outcrops, with high sand dunes along the section we are travelling. It’s also much cooler – we’re almost cold – than the previous week we’ve spent inland.

From time to time there are the remains of abandoned mines visible from the road. The one below is an old oil extraction station that was operational in the late 1960s and early 70s, before the National Park was proclaimed.

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Of the several thousand shipwrecks along the Skeleton Coast, a few are easily accessible from the main coastal road. The first wreck, between Ambrose Bay and Ugab gate which marks the southern end of the national park, is the S.W. Seal. Parts of the boat, which sank in June 1976, are well preserved despite the waves washing over the remains.

A view from above provides a better sense of the desolation of the coast – I can’t find much information on the wreck, or if there are any survivors. But even if the crew managed to reach shore, there’s still the challenge of reaching civilisation, hundreds of kilometres away.

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Just after the shipwreck is the Ugab Gate, which marks the southern end of the Skeleton Coast Park and the start of the Dorob National Park. Proclaimed in 2010, Dorob is one of Namibia’s newest national parks.

This next part of the Skeleton Coast (C34) route is a “salt road”: the surface is a mixture of salt water, gypsum, sand and/or gravel that is baked in the sun. Although it can become slippery and dangerous when wet, it’s very smooth – almost like a tarred road – and we can drive much faster on this section.

It’s a welcome change after the rocky, tyre-shredding first section of road, and the previous loose gravel.

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Our next stop is the Cape Cross Seal Reserve, the best-known breeding colony of Cape Fur seals along the Namib coast. (It’s also the site of the first European to set foot on Namibian soil, the Portuguese navigator Diego Cão in 1486.) The population of well-fed seals is sustained by the rich concentration of fish from the cold Benguela Current, with over 100,000 seals basking on the beach and swimming in the surf. Although the abundance of seals and their piles of stinky seal poo means it a seriously smelly place, and our nostrils are assaulted as soon as we open the car doors!

There is a walkway all the way around the seal colony, and the seals also seem to have taken over some of the picnic areas intended for humans.

You can get very close to the seals, who seem unperturbed by the human intrusion, and it’s fascinating to watch them alternate between playing, fighting and sleeping.

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We’ve almost finished today’s journey. We have one last (brief) stop to look at the wreck of the Zeila. It was stranded on 25 August 2008 in the early morning hours near “Die Walle”, a popular fishing spot about 14km south of Henties Bay. Having been sold as scrap metal to an Indian company, the fishing trawler came loose from its towing line while on its way to from Walvis Bay to Bombay. Although shipwrecked, it looks like it’s still floating just off the beach.

From here its another hour to our accommodation in Swakopmund. It’s been a long day in the car (about seven hours driving) with some challenging roads, but we’re all really glad we took the “long road” and experienced the isolation and desolation of the Skeleton Coast.

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Brigadoon Guest House, Swakopmund

Overall rating: 4/5.
Food: 4/5. Breakfast provided. For dinner there are lots of restaurants in Swakopmund, and the guest house was happy to help us book one. Book as far ahead as possible.

Family friendly:  3/5. One main bed, a single bed and a folding bed in one large room.
Scenery: 4/5. Sea and sand dunes.
Activities: 5/5. Sand dune tour, dolphin/whale/seal watching tours, skydiving, kayaking, fishing, quad biking, sand boarding, camel rides into the desert

After checking in (we don’t arrive until 5pm), we’re just in time for dinner – with lots of choice, for the first time in a week! It’s nice and cool as it has been all the way along the Skeleton Coast; being right on the coast, Swakopmund has a completely different climate to the inland towns.  Swakopmund, a coastal resort, was founded in 1892 as the main harbour for German South West Africa and to enable Germany to establish control over the territory it claimed in the interior. A small part of its population is still German-speaking today and there are many examples of German colonial architecture.

Walvis Bay Boat Trip (Day 10)

We are picked up at our guest house at 8am, for a transfer to Walvis Bay where we are booked on a seal & dolphin watching tour with Ocean Adventures. Situated 30km to the south of Swakopmund, Walvis Bay is Namibia’s main port and home to its large fishing fleet. The fishing industry is the mainstay of the town’s economy, with a number of tourist operators also using the port. It’s about half an hour on a fairly busy sealed road; there’s a slight delay as we divert around a truck that’s over-turned. We’re surprised we haven’t seen any other accidents so far – according to the World Health Organisation, Namibia is ranked first in the world in terms of the number of road deaths per 100,000 residents.

We have a short wait at the Sandwich Harbour wharf, as a few other boats pick up their passengers. Our catamaran finally arrives, and we have a brief pre-boarding safety briefing.

Once we are underway, it doesn’t take long for a seal to make itself at home on the back of the boat; our guide explains there are five seals that have been rescued which live near the wharf, and are separate from the colony of “wild” seals. They are fed by the various boat cruise operators, and are quite comfortable being around humans.

We’re heading directly away from Sandwich Harbour, with the industrial area of Walvis Bay in the distance.

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We’re soon joined by a pink backed pelican that circles the boat…

… before it lands on the boat, where it’s happy to pose for us.

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A second one joins the boat; both happily hitch a ride as we keep a lookout for whales, which have been sighted in the bay the last few days.

We spot a pair of humpback whales, which often visit the coastline of Namibia. Southern right, humpback and Minke whales pass by the coast from July-November, with most sightings taking place in October and November.

We watch them for a while, but need to continue on our journey so we have time to observe the seal colony on Pelican Point. We see some cape gannets and kelp gulls.

As we reach the middle of the bay, heading towards Pelican Point, there’s an increasing number of what looks like abandoned ships.

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Our guide explains these boats service the oil rigs off the coast of Angola, to the north. Due to the oil price being depressed, many of these oil rigs have become uneconomical to operate. As a result, hundreds of boats that serviced these rigs are now moored in Walvis Bay with a skeleton crew. It’s much cheaper to moor them here than in Angola.

We reach the seal colony at Pelican Point, a sandbar which forms one of the perimeters of Walvis Bay. While the Cape Cross seal colony is much larger, there’s up to 30,000 seals at Pelican Point. At Cape Cross you can observe them better on land; here you can see them cavorting in the water at close range.

We see more kelp gulls, also known as the Dominican gull, which breeds on coasts and islands.

Our guide spots a sunfish as we’re having lunch – it’s the heaviest known bony fish in the world, with adults weighing between 247 and 1,000kg. It look like a fish head with a tail, its main body being body flattened laterally.

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From Pelican Point we head back to the wharf; on the return journey we pick up a few more flying hitchhikers. As we near the shore our friendly seal returns, leaping onto the back of the boat and waiting expectantly for some more food!

Walvis Bay Sand Dunes (Day 10)

Following the boat tour, it’s straight onto a 4WD tour of the sand dunes by Sand Waves Namibia. We’re met at the wharf as we come of the boat by Juandre, and we board his Nissan Patrol.

Our first stop, not far out of Walvis Bay as we head south towards the sand dunes is the Walvis Bay Lagoon, home of a large flamingo colony.

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The lagoon is home to hundreds of thousands of birds throughout the year, and has been declared a Ramsar site for its importance as a wetlands area and a feeding ground for many of species of bird on migratory routes from Africa to the Arctic Circle. The number of birds fluctuates from year to year, ranging from 37,000 to as many as 170,000 resident birds around the lagoon, with another 200,000 more stopping off on migratory routes. The best time to see them is a bit later than our visit; November to March.

A bit further on, and still accessible by 2WD, are the salt works, a 3500-hectare salt-pan complex which currently supplies over 90% of South Africa’s salt. The pans concentrate salt from seawater with the aid of evaporation, and are also a rich feeding ground for shrimp and larval fish. (They are one of the three wetlands around Walvis Bay that  together form Southern Africa’s single most important coastal wetland for migratory birds.)