For the past few months, I have been working on two manuscripts: a sequel to No Stone Unturned and a new novel for Young Adults, set on the notorious prison island of Alcatraz. It has been an interesting exercise, as writing and editing the two projects concurrently has forced me to take time out from one manuscript, stand back and let it rest while editing the other. That little bit of distance has really helped with both novels. It never ceases to amaze me how problems that you simply haven’t been able to see before, leap out at you from the page when you have had some time away from it. Having said that, I have been doing too much tinkering. At some point, we writers just have to let our work fly, send it out, and see what someone else thinks of it. It’s way too easy to keep refining, fiddling, changing the odd word here and there. I don’t think we ever really like to stop and say it’s perfect. So for me it was good to have a holiday coming up. A deadline to hit. A time to say, ‘Enough now. Stop. Have a break and on your return move on to something new.’
This year I turned 50. Gulp. How can that be when I still feel half that age? But 50 I am and in June my husband joined the club, so for our holiday this year we pushed the boat out and took our two kids – now 16 and 19 – on an African adventure. We have visited South Africa many times to stay with my in-laws who lived out there for many years, and back 1991 we also visited Zimbabwe. (We got engaged at Victoria Falls.) We would have returned there, but the month of July can be cold and wet, particularly down at the Cape, so we looked elsewhere, settling on Namibia, where although the nights would be cold, the days were more likely to hot and dry. And so they were. All 17 of them. 17 fantastic, awesome, unforgettable days. It truly was a trip of a life time and I’m now going to try my best not to bore you with a few holiday snaps.
Our journey started in Windhoek, where we picked up our car for the trip: a honking great Toyota Hilux Double. Fantastic. I want one! We then headed for our first overnight stop, the Windhoek Country Club, where we slept like babes after our overnight flight from Heathrow, via Johannesburg. The next morning our adventure really began. Just a few yards from the city ring road, the tarmac ended and for the next five and half hours we bumped along unmade gravel rounds, heading south west towards the Namib Naukluft Park. We passed only a handful of cars, drove through only one small settlement of just 6 or so buildings, and were in awe of the landscape. We had opted for a longer, scenic route, which took us via the Spreetshoogte Pass, and our mouths fell open as we drove over the crest of the mountain and saw the view ahead. Immense. Like a scene from Mars.
We passed through a wonderful one horse town aptly named Solitaire, famous for Moose MacGregor’s bakery and its apple pie, then headed south to our hotel. We stayed for 3 nights at Le Mirage, which really is an oasis in the desert. It’s also an excellent base from which to explore Sossusvlei, with it’s world record breaking sand dunes (some over 300m tall) and its salt pans complete with striking tree skeletons. The hotel also offers quad biking trips, and we had great fun tearing around the desert, heading up into the mountains in time to watch the sun setting.
Our next stop was a day’s drive through the desert, down through Kuiseb Canyon to the Atlantic Coast where we stayed for 3 nights in Swakopmund. This rather strange town, with its Germanic architecture, is sandwiched between the crashing waves of the coast and the miles and miles of towering sand dunes inland. It’s a bit of a shock being in a town after the solitude of the desert, but the place soon grows on you. Lately it has become Namibia’s centre for extreme sports, and having two teenage kids with us, we had no choice but to partake. We spent an afternoon blasting around the sand dunes on yet more quad bikes (great fun, even Brad Pitt has done it!) and a morning surfing down the dunes on boards. Yes really. Check it out. Crazy but exhilarating. We also enjoyed a morning’s marine cruise in Walvis Bay, and although we weren’t lucky enough to see any whales, we saw plenty of seals and dolphins and were joined on board not just by pelicans but also a large male seal.
It was then time to head back inland. Our journey traversed the section of desert used in the Mad Max Fury Road movie, and it’s easy to see why it was chosen as a location. It really is wild. Big and wild. It takes a good couple of hours to cross it. and it’s quite a relief when the landscape starts to undulate again and you see ahead of you the Brandberg Mountain range. Our 2 night stop was at the Huab Lodge where the staff make you feel part of the family. Meals are eaten around one big table so it’s a fantastic way to meet people and learn about the area. We all fell a little bit in love with our guide who took us on a walking safari as well as three game drives and had a head packed with facts. He also took us to see some 4,000-year-old rock paintings, which were beautifully preserved.
Then it was on to the Epacha game lodge, which is about one hour’s drive from the Etosha Game Reserve, so the wildlife we were able to see became more and more interesting. The lodge is perched on the side of a hill, and it’s possible to watch the animals at the waterhole below. Even giraffe venture quite close to the lodge.
Etosha itself includes an immense salt pan which is completely dry at this time of year so many of the animals congregate around water holes. We were lucky enough to see lots of elephant, as well as zebra, wildebeets, springbok, kudu, oryx, giraffe, black-backed jackals, lions (a mating pair and then 3 males sleeping under a tree), red hartebeest and so on. And we even struck lucky and saw three cheetah with a springbok kill. The reserve’s rhino (black and white) remained illusive however, giving us a good excuse to return one day.
Our accommodation inside Etosha was at Onkoshi Camp. Those of you who know me know that my camping days are far behind me, but I promise you I was actually sleeping within canvass walls. Stylish ones, I grant you, but canvass nonetheless. All rooms at Onkoshi are raised above the Pan on stilts, and their position on the very edge of the pan make it simply breathtaking, especially at sunset. An unforgettable place.
We left Onkoshi and Etosha with a heavy heart and followed the road south towards Otjiwarongo. This was our first long tarmac road in a long while, and it felt sad to be heading back towards civilisation. We stayed the night at Frans Indongo Lodge, rising early so that we could arrive at the nearby Cheetah Conservation Fund in time for the cheetah run. If any you saw Davina McCall’s Life at the Extreme series, you may remember that she visited Namibia in the first episode, and ran a race against the cheetahs. (No surprise, Davina. They beat you.) Well we didn’t race with the cheetahs, but we were in the enclosure with four females, doing our best to behave like a herd so that one of them wouldn’t pick on one of us, while they raced around just 8 to 10 feet away from us. Quite scary but like many of our experiences in this beautiful country, unforgettable.
From there, we drove to the AfriCat Foundation where we saw more cheetah close up and learned about the Foundation’s efforts to return orphaned and injured cats to the wild. It’s a beautiful place and like the CCF, is a project well worth supporting if you can.
Our adventure was now nearly over, and we had just one more night back in Windhoek before we flew home the next day. We have memories to last us a life time. Memories of a stunning country, the friendliest of people, the very best food, some wonderful animals and the most extreme of sports. Namibia, wow. Just wow!