Normally cool and laid-back, Samuel Nangwena was visibly thrilled. But our guide had to dial back his excitement. It was rather late, almost 10pm. Our group was finally about to rest in our chalets at Okaukuejo Resort in the middle of Namibia’s Etosha National Park.
We were bone-tired after being on the move for more than half a day, covering 600km of tarred, gravel and coastal salt roads in 4x4 vehicles. But what Nangwena told us was the sort of thing that made sleep unimportant.
“Good news! There are four rhinos at the waterhole,” he announced in a half-whisper.
He was referring to the resort’s centrepiece – a shallow pool just beyond the belly-high stone wall at the back of the property.
It attracts a steady traffic of thirsty animals round the clock, but is especially enchanting between sunset and sunrise, when floodlights bathe the spot in a soft yellow glow.
That October night, it took a while for the mind to process our first sight of the Okaukuejo waterhole. It was as if curtains had parted to reveal the secret lives of African beasts.
There were indeed several rhinos there. This alone would have been amazing enough, but there was more.
A herd of maybe 20 elephants young and old had also lumbered in. We were informed that elephants are not gracious social drinkers, that they do not like sharing space at waterholes. The rhinos kept their distance; they must have gotten the memo.
Seemingly oblivious to the hushed and awestruck audience on the other side of the wall, the elephants went about their business unhurriedly, giving us plenty of time to observe.
It was like gazing with longing eyes at the neighbours frolicking in their swimming pool, except in this case, nobody would call you the “creep next door”.
Within our first hour or so at Etosha, we already had this unique and unforgettable experience.
And in the next two days, we would witness a lioness killing a springbok fawn and chance upon a usually elusive leopard taking a midday stroll.
We would set foot in a salt pan so vast and shimmering that it shows up in photographs taken from space. The Etosha Pan – Etosha means “great white place” – is the ghost of a lake whose water evaporated many centuries ago, leaving a crust of mineral deposits.
Of course, we had numerous other animal encounters during our game drives in the park. With the knowledgeable and lively Me-Gusto Busch, our other guide, leading the way as our cars hopped from waterhole to waterhole, we saw perhaps 20 species of mammals and birds roaming freely.
We had our fill of zebras, giraffes, lions, ostriches, elephants, rhinos, jackals, various types of antelope, kori bustards (among the world’s largest flying birds) and secretary birds.
It helped that it was the dry season; animals were at waterholes more often and the grass was shorter, making it easier to spot them.
Land of contrasts
Several of us in the group, including me, had been on safaris elsewhere in Africa, but Etosha seldom felt like more of the same.
This was the theme throughout the 10-day familiarisation trip for Malaysian journalists and tour company executives – Namibia kept beating expectations.
And yet, despite its abundant wildlife, stark yet dramatic landscapes, easygoing people, and breathtaking geographical and cultural diversity, the south-west African nation is not getting due attention in this part of the world.
Determined to change this, Anne Namakau Mutelo, the Namibian High Commissioner to Malaysia, worked for over a year to organise a visit that will hopefully lead to more Malaysians seriously considering Namibia as a holiday destination.
She enlisted sponsors such as the Namibia Tourism Board; Air Namibia, whose domestic flight from the far north to the central Namibian capital of Windhoek spared us many more long hours on the road; and Namibia Wildlife Resorts, which runs Okaukuejo Resort and Popa Falls Resort in Divundu, another place where we put up for the night.
Ethiopian Airlines was on board as well, flying us between Kuala Lumpur and Windhoek via Singapore and Addis Ababa, the carrier’s home hub.
It was a way for the airline to showcase how it connects Malaysia with Africa through a 12-hour KL-Addis Ababa service five days a week, using the twin-aisle Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner aircraft.
Mutelo was eager for us visitors to have a taste of what makes her passionate about Namibia.
Understandably, our itinerary included going to the northern town of Katima Mulilo, which she calls “my kampung”. Hometown pride may have been one reason our trip was entirely in the country’s top half.
It was also because Namibia is nearly two-and-a-half times the size of Malaysia.
It would have been overly ambitious to cram our itinerary with southern attractions such as Sossusvlei, famous for its towering sand dunes, and Fish River Canyon, Africa’s deepest canyon that’s hugely popular for hiking.
Not that we had anything to complain about. The travel plan drawn up for us was already a busy one.
Soon after arriving in Windhoek, we were off to Swakopmund, a seaside town where we stayed for two nights. And then it was another two nights at Etosha, followed by a series of overnight stops at Rundu, Divundu, Katima Mulilo, Windhoek and Otjiwarongo.
Minus the plane ride from Katima Mulilo to Windhoek, it was a road trip of well over 2,000km. And we certainly saw many different things. It is not for nothing that the national anthem praises “beautiful contrasting Namibia”.
Of dolphins and dunes
Consider this: It has not one, but two deserts. The Kalahari is in the east, and hugging the Atlantic coast is the Namib, said to be the planet’s oldest and driest desert and is the source of the country’s name.
There is no getting around the fact that much of Namibia is arid. But I rarely looked at it as desolate or monotonous.
Many plants and animals have adapted to the harshness. As the changing sceneries of the Namib flashed by while we travelled from Swakopmund to Etosha, the desert showed that it is a wilderness where life is inventive and resilient.
The Kalahari did not feature in our trip but we struck up an acquaintance with the Namib on our second day in the country. Our base was Swakopmund, which has the charm of a bygone era and the distinction of having the cold Atlantic to the west and the desert on the other three sides.
But we had little time to explore the town. Our sole full day in that area was mainly spent further south at Walvis Bay and Namib-Naukluft National Park.
En route to Walvis Bay, we had the Namib on the left and the ocean on the right. It was a baffling image. At some points, the fine sand had been blown across the road and all the way to the shoreline, giving the impression that the desert was dipping a toe in the Atlantic.
Most tourists head to Walvis Bay for a dolphin and seal cruise. So we too went on a boat that took us reasonably close to a noisy seal colony on a sandspit.
The dolphins turned up. They were frequently leaping out of the water, inviting us to snap away, although such was my timing and skills that nearly all the photos showed only ripples in the water and perhaps a tail or two.
We also saw a couple of the blob-like ocean sunfish or mola mola, the heaviest bony fish around.
For on-board entertainment, cruise passengers could feed stowaway seals and peckish pelicans. And the humans were fed an oyster brunch towards the end of the cruise.
We swapped our boat for 4x4 vehicles that took us into a section of Namib-Naukluft National Park where, as one brochure says, dunes and ocean meet. Our cars went over hills of sand and zoomed along the beach. At times, it was very much like sailing on a sandy sea.
We took a break at the foot of a dune. A table, food and ice-cold drinks appeared. A picnic in the desert is a slightly surreal – the song Tea In The Sahara by The Police was swirling around in my mind – but wholly satisfying way to end our introduction to the Namib.
There were other parts of the country for us to get to know. Travelling by road allowed us to see more.
With myriad shapes and colours, the Namibian terrain that we passed through in those 10 days had an appeal of its own.
At a souvenir store, I browsed through a book that describes Namibia as a “geological wonderland” and “one of the most geologically interesting countries in the world”. Sure, we did not study rocks during our trip but I have no problems believing the author’s claim.
A region of mighty rivers
Even the shape of the country is worth mentioning.
Here’s a short geography lesson. Imagine the country as a rectangle initially. Out came a giant hand to squeeze hard at the bottom, causing the upper portion to bulge and a 450km panhandle to squirt out at the north-eastern corner.
This ribbon of land is widely known as the Caprivi Strip. Divundu and Katima Malilo are part of it, while Rundu is not far from the base of the protrusion. Above Caprivi are Namibia’s northern neighbours, Angola and Zambia. Botswana lies to the south.
And now a quick history lesson. Namibia was once a German colony. In an 1890 treaty with Britain, Germany carved out the strip to gain access to the Zambezi River. The idea was that the river would connect Namibia with German territory in east Africa, and ultimately with the Indian Ocean on the other side of the continent.
One can only presume that during the talks, nobody pointed out that such a river journey requires going 100m straight up or down Victoria Falls.
Nevertheless, this blunder gave Namibia a water-rich region that boasts not just the Zambezi but two other river systems with pretty famous names: Okavango and Chobe.
The highlights of our Caprivi experience revolved around these rivers. We enjoyed lovely riverine accommodation and went on game drives on serene, green floodplains.
An outstanding memory was that of being at the right place at the right time when some 200 African buffaloes trotted down from the hills at dusk to graze. A narrow stretch of the Chobe River (and the invisible border between Namibia and Botswana) separated us from the notoriously unpredictable animals.
In Caprivi, a boat ride on at least one of the mighty rivers is compulsory. It is the best way to see crocodiles and hippos up close.
We unfortunately missed our opportunities, having learnt the hard way that despite what people say about the elasticity of “African time”, punctuality does matter.
If you do not keep to your schedule and arrive late at a destination, you may well find that gates have been closed or a river cruise has departed.
In our defence, we occasionally fell behind because there was a lot to do at our stops – new surroundings to survey, explanations to absorb, questions to ask, stuff to buy and pictures to take. That’s right, it was all Namibia’s fault.