The end of endless firsts

Sossusvlei to Cape Town – Namibia to South Africa

June 2008

Namibia is vast, an impression I got at Spitzkoppe, the same impression I got while admiring the view under a parachute, and the same impression I got when we arrived at our “almost bush camp”, the first night after leaving Swakopmund. I say it was almost a bush camp because officially we were staying on someone’s farm, not that you would know as there was no farm, fences or animals to be seen. We parked the truck up at the end of a dusty track. Twenty metres away was a little tarpaulin held up on poles in a box-like fashion. On closer inspection it was a long drop toilet and the tarpaulin only surrounded three quarters of the toilet, the entrance was completely open to the huge Namibian landscape that lay in front. If ever you needed a poo out in the wild, this was the place to do it, a pretty comfy toilet and a view fit for a king. The flat grassy plain that we were in the middle of had some hills that rose up out of it and I decided to take myself for a walk up one of them. After a good half hour of walking and ascending one of the hills I turned around to see once again a small yellow dot surrounded by several smaller dots that were our tents. We really did look like our own little solar system in the middle of the deep, empty space that was Namibia.

As the final week of the tour approached there was a definite sense of a change of pace in the air. Not only were the days flying by much faster than before, Swakopmund marked the end of our multiday stops and from that point onward we would be somewhere new almost every night until we reached Cape Town. A morning’s drive took us away from the toilet with a view (which happened to provide plenty of conversation for several hours) until we ended up at Sossusvlei which is part of the Namib-Nauklaft National Park in Southern Namibia. Sossusvlei is made up of two words. Sossus means dead end whilst Vlei means marsh. Therefore, Sossusvlei roughly translates to ‘dead end marsh’. The reason for this is that on the rare occasion when it does rain there, every ten years or so, the rain water has nowhere to go and so it forms ponds of water dotted in between all the sand dunes. The whole area is part of one of the oldest deserts in the world, complete with the highest sand dunes. It’s not like we hadn’t seen the Namib desert only days before further up the coast but there was something magical about Sossusvlei, full of eye-catching features. A dead tree standing in the middle of a dried-out lake bed with a huge red dune behind it, little green bushes randomly popping out of the sand and the most beautiful curves you will ever see in nature. Long sweeping sand dunes for as far as you can see that swept along the landscape back and forth, covered in ripples with the occasional reptile or insect track streaked against it. Walking through the dunes was like that feeling you get when you are the first to walk in fresh snow, that smug feeling arising from the knowledge that no one else has been there, or at least not at that moment in time. We were lucky to lose ourselves in there for over three hours and although it was winter it was very much a day for shorts, t-shirt and sunnies. Our guide for the afternoon was a petite Japanese lady called Yuri who was the definition of both excitable and enthusiastic. Yuri’s energy was incredible as she literally ran through the desert in bare feet and green khaki shirt and trousers. She was a guide that could make three hours pass by in an instant by having the skill to engage anyone about anything with knowledge and humour that could make any other guide at Sossusvlei quit in an instant. The adventure activity of the day was to literally throw ourselves down the side of some of the dunes that were steep enough to get a good genuine head over heels roll going on. To cap off the afternoon there was of course a sunset to be watched. This was once again not going to be any old sunset, this was going to be watching the sun set over one of the oldest deserts on earth. Oh, and I nearly forgot, we would be sat on top of what is apparently the most photographed sand dune in the world, the beautifully named Dune 45. I think the only reason it is so photogenic is that it sits next to the car park! But, at eighty metres high, containing sand that is millions of years old, turning into a magnificent orange colour during sunset we will give it the benefit of the doubt that it is worthy of its status. Time was against us as we had to get to the campsite before the night took hold and so we quickened our pace following the crest of Dune 45 and pulled over approximately two thirds of the way up. Although we weren’t at the top we had a spectacular view of the park and primarily a huge plain that was obviously a river at certain times in its life. It must have been several miles wide with dunes rising up either side of it. Looking further up Dune 45 we could make out the shadows of a group of people on the summit who resembled nothing more than little stick people. With the sun below the horizon we headed back down Dune 45, piled into the truck and set off to the campsite.

Before we knew it we had crossed into South Africa and the penultimate day had arrived with only one activity on the board for the day. Wine tasting in Stellenbosch. It was to be a slightly strange but wonderful day, kicking off around 10.30 in the morning. We had four wineries to visit with a minibus that would have the honour of transporting us around. Although not one of the warmest days, the sun was shining in a clear blue sky and the surrounding landscape of mountains and vineyards provided easy viewing for the eyes. The problem that lay ahead for me was that I wasn’t a big fan of wine! I drank wine but I wasn’t a fan of it and I certainly had no idea what I liked and didn’t like which, actually made me think that this wine tour could actually come in quite handy. The scene was set for a disastrous day in all honesty. Twenty odd people, largely all under thirty years old and about to split up after seven to ten weeks together, spending the day drinking wine at places that were rather more sophisticated than what we had become accustomed to. There were people passionate about their wines who wanted to share all their knowledge with us, there was free wine and samples of chocolate and cheese and there was a lot of glass. Basically, it was the complete opposite of our first big night together all those weeks ago at Snake Park in Tanzania. As it turned out, the day played out rather perfectly with everyone soaking up the chilled-out vibes of the moment. Everywhere we went was beautiful and interesting and the free wine was enough to get everyone in a light tipsy mood but not enough to get anyone blind drunk! Did I learn anything? No, not really. I started to acquire a taste for red wine but as for differentiating between anything other than colour, I was no better off.

My alarm went off at eight but I had been awake for an hour or so earlier, full of a hundred different emotions. On one hand it was like any other day on tour in Africa, get out of bed and go and do something epic but on the other hand it was the last day we would get such an opportunity. Ed and I met in the hostel reception awaiting our lift to the coast, a lift which didn’t arrive until an hour after it was supposed to. I was in no mood to be waiting around. I wanted to get on a boat, swim with some Great White sharks and then get to Cape Town so as to join up with the rest of the group as soon as possible. Both Ed and I were already sad enough knowing that we were missing out on the final trip in the truck and we imagined it would be quite a carnival atmosphere as they rocked up in Cape Town. The drive to the coast where our boat would be waiting took two hours and by the time we arrived the weather had clouded over somewhat and there was a strong breeze in the air. Luckily the boats were still departing and Ed and I began to forget the significance of the day and instead got excited about the prospect of seeing some big, bad ass, angry fish. This feeling didn’t last for long once we got out onto the open sea though. Apparently, a swell that looks small from the comfort of dry land is actually quite big and significant out at sea in a small boat. The only way to describe this is that out of approximately fifteen passengers on board no less than five introduced their breakfast to the fish. Ed was one of the unlucky ones who looked as though his kidneys had failed although remarkably he did manage to get in the cage, play with some sharks and have me take a heap of photos for him before he turned yellow. The problem being that he was supposed to be taking heaps of photos for me when I went into the cage but instead he was bent over the side of the boat. Sporting a wetsuit, I handed my camera to Ed in the hope it would distract him from the boat lunging up towards the clouds before falling back towards the ocean floor. I then climbed down with another two people into the cage attached to the side of the boat, put on my snorkel and mask and waited patiently to see something. Being down in the water was much more calming than being up on deck as although we were bobbing up and down, it felt a lot more natural and a lot less nauseating than it had a few minutes previously. And then she appeared! I will never forget the moment she swam by, two pitch black piercing eyes, apparently fixed directly upon us. Her jaw was full of jagged teeth from top to bottom. If I had stuck my little finger out of the cage, it would have been bitten off so cleanly and efficiently I wouldn’t have noticed. This was a Great White shark, quite simply the most remarkable yet terrifying creature I have ever looked in the eye. It’s an obvious thing to say but they are literally designed to destroy anything they fancy eating but, before they even get to their first bite it would appear they were also designed to scare the very life out of their victim beforehand. There was one major issue with what we were doing though and, since my shark cage diving experience I have become a lot wiser. To get the sharks to swim past the cage, they are baited using huge chunks of meat on the end of a line which a chap continuously throws into the water to attract the sharks and then pulls away at the last minute. Putting it another way, for me, it would be like Taylor Swift coming up to my bedroom wearing only a silk slip, taking it off, approach me with a look of intent and then put the silk slip back on and walk away, repeatedly! Baiting sharks for the pleasure of tourists is actually a bloody terrible thing to do as they should be out hunting for a steak, not pulling over for a hamburger because it appears to be the easy option. I wouldn’t do it again but that’s easy for me to say as someone who has had the opportunity to look a Great White shark in the eye. To be fair on Ed and I, we had been recommended and had wanted to do an early morning boat trip that took you out to see the Great White’s breaching out of the ocean as they were hunting for seals. Instead of being in a cage trying to attract them, we would have sat in a boat watching them jump high up out of the water which would obviously have been an incredible sight albeit we wouldn’t have been able to have a staring contest with one. Unfortunately, this option didn’t fit with the time and places of the tour. I have also since learnt that it is possible to scuba dive with Great Whites without a cage and presumably no bait which trumps cage diving by a country mile. My half hour in the cage will be an experience I will never forget but, a bit like the Rwandan Genocide memorial I left with more questions than answers about the world around us. Back on board I retrieved my camera from Ed who was by now in full flow so to speak and I flicked through the photos to see that he hadn’t managed to take a single shot. To make myself feel better I tucked into a tasty complimentary sandwich roll and a can of pop for lunch and then ate Ed’s roll. After a wee while longer, realising that few others were interested in the food available I helped myself to a third and final roll! I felt sick as hell but very little stops me from eating and with my belly full of food and pop I focused on the shoreline as we made our way back to the harbour. It was five in the afternoon when Ed and I rocked up at the hostel in Cape Town and met up with the guys. The drive in was rather disappointing as rain clouds hung low over the city and Table Mountain was nowhere to be seen. It appeared that our good fortune had come to an end in the dying moments of the tour but even so, if a little bit of rain on our final day was the worse we got throughout our ten weeks of travelling through Africa then I feel obliged to have bugger all to complain about.

Taken from my unpublished ‘The African Trigtale’. My experience on a ten week overland tour I did in East and Southern Africa in 2008. Kindly edited by Lauren Goringe.

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