There is absolutely no point pulling or tugging, the beast has bitten in for real. Instinct is instinct, especially here in the desert, the place hostile to life, where nobody will become more than one day old who does not watch out. The child shrieks in pain, tears roll down his cheeks. Others looking on seem similary shocked. And do nothing. Not that the beast will get to you next… Until guide Tommy starts laughing loudly. It was him, after all, who put the palm gecko onto the nine year old's ear where it then took a good bite. Immediately, parents present begin to have their first doubts if such an Africa trip was such a good idea for children after all. Finally, Tommy decides to release his guinea pig from its “suffering” and gives the gecko a good push to its body. As if by command, the child shrieks louder. Is this delicate animal, whose organs you can observe in motion against the light, maybe similar in construction to a crocodile? Two fingers are enough to keep the mouth shut, but not even two men have a chance of opening it. After Tommy has repeated the boy's melodious shrieks, he continues joking in his charming African German. “Okay, let’s try to be tender, maybe it is a female.” His big fingers start massaging the gecko softly. And guess what: it releases the ear.
The rolling base camp
To cut a long story short: Even if Swakopmund is something like Namibia’s Ballermann with flyers and posters everywhere which depict exciting but expensive activities like sandboarding, quad biking and deep-sea fishing, Tommy’s small animal safari should be on the list of every traveller in Namibia – with or without children.
The WITH children to Africa scenario was of course discussed heatedly when planning the journey. Especially because the youngest soon-to-be African traveller is only four years old and his favourite activity at home is to find small animals underneath every rock. But there is also a duty to educate. In our home city of Augsburg, every child receives a season ticket for the zoo at birth. So basically, all three little rascals have pretty much grown up with elephants, ostriches and springboks. And now I feel obliged to show them their favourite animals in their natural habitat. A zoo without fences, so to say. When researching suitable destinations for big animals and small children, we quickly put Namibia on the map. The former German colony in the south-west of the black continent is still referred to by the older generation as German South-West Africa. And although the “guest appearance” of the Germans at the turn of the century did not last longer than 30 years, you can still see many traces of the not always glorious past. For us, Namibia scores with the following highlights: few people, a lot of space, stable weather, comfortable climate, no malaria, impressive landscapes and the Etosha National Park rich in fauna.
Africa with little children,is that doable? The mix of ages on the holiday plane alleviates our doubts. The under 18s quota is at 25 percent.
Perfect travel time? Suitable during school holidays at the end of the Namibian winter in July/August. Perfect accommodation? A rolling hotel room: a roof tent on top of an off-road jeep. It only takes one look at the map to see that Namibia does not work for sightseeing from a base camp because there are too many highlights spread across the country. When you go to Namibia, you should be able to sit still because you easily clock up 2,000 kilometres on the move.
When we take our seats in the holiday plane, already a certain load is taken off our minds. We are definitely not alone with our children. Midway through the Bavarian school holidays, around two dozen primary school kids and preschoolers are on the Condor direct flight to Windhoek. At the end of a comfortable ten-hour overnight flight, we reach Namibia’s capital and take possession of our rental car. It is a model you will only find in Southern Africa. A pick-up with a double cabin and a special aluminium lid covering the load area. Inside there is all the camping equipment you need, from an axe to a cool box and a corkscrew. On top of all that there are two roof tents with enough space for a family of five. When you take into account that such a "rolling Swiss pocket knife" is a rental car and hotel all in one, the price is fair at around 120 euros per day.
Straight ahead for hours
Against all well-meant advice not to take on the challenge of traffic driving on the left after a night-time flight, we start our journey down south and let Windhoek be Windhoek. We did not fly so far to look at grey concrete anyway.
Our first destination is the Halahari Anib Lodge near Mariental. There, we want to get organised and get a first taste of Africa.
For me, it is always such an incredible feeling when you truly arrive on this incredible continent and imagine what journeys and adventures could be possible on such a mighty land mass. And which countries you definitely do not want to visit at all. Namibia is definitely amongst the good guys. Only a few people, a lot of space and a comparably respectable standard of living make it one of the safest destinations in Africa. Sure, there are also corners in Windhoek where you do not want to have your wallet in your pocket, but in comparison with South Africa for example, the number of such no-go spots is low.
After three hours on the well-built B1 going South, we reach the lodge and make ourselves comfortable in a beautiful bungalow. It does not take long for the boys to discover the nearby pool and dedicate it with cannon ball dives. That turns into the ritual of our journey. No matter how exhausting the drive, whether camping or in a lodge, there is always a pool to burn up extra energy.
The mercy of the time zone
Everybody who has travelled with children through time zones that differ eight hours and more from the bed at home can enjoy another positive side of Namibia on the first night: Thanks to only a small time difference, there is no jet lag and everything is business as usual.
The Southern Cross and the Milky Way seem within our reach. We are awake for hours, looking out of our roof tents and talking about infinity.
The next day, we roll across a washboarding roads towards the coast. We cover many kilometres with a long straight road ahead of us and a cloud of dust behind us. Instead of driving to a camp site in the evening, we set up camp in the grey area at the side of the road. This side of the road is on the Spreetshoogte Pass and offers a view of the Namib Mountains that we cannot resist.
As soon as the fire has burnt down and we are all lying comfortably in the roof tents, we realise why nobody else camps up here. A thermal wind kicks up and threatens to blow us – and the vehicle – over the edge. Only in the early morning hours when the temperature difference between daytime and night-time has adjusted do we snatch a bit of sleep. We have learned our lesson, but it was worth the view. And when we stock up with apple strudel and elephant ears later at a German bakery in Solitaire, the anguish is already forgotten.
To the sun, to freedom
The next stop is THE famous landmark of Namibia. A salt pan decorated with dead trees in the middle of a 300 metre high dune called Deadvlei. This wonder of the world looks especially beautiful during sunrise. To make that work out, we need a pole position at the campsite which is located inside the national park. Otherwise, you will stand in front of the park at six in the morning and wait for the ranger to open the gate and let the waiting cars drive in. You will then experience the sunrise somewhere on your journey along the 65 kilometre stretch of road to the parking spot at Deadvlei. The gate to the campsite, however, opens one hour earlier and if you do not dawdle, you will get more out of exploring Deadvlei. Our tip is first to climb Big Daddy on the left – one of Namibia’s highest dunes – and then surf down the northern side barefoot to the pan. Or set a new somersault world record.
At the next two stops, we again swap sleeping bags and penthouse on the car roof for spring mattresses and pristine white linen. We just cannot resist the Namib Dune Star Camp which we came across during our travel preparations because we can roll our beds out onto the veranda for a night’s sleep. Children are actually only allowed from the age of 12, but what are exceptions for? And in Swakopmund, where cold lake fog often puts the city into salty cotton, camping is just not an option.
And anyway, there's Swakopmund. The town on the Atlantic is not only in total contrast to the rest of Namibia because of its German history. A red-white light house stands between palm trees, the buildings have German names, the district court is called Amtsgericht and the brewery is a Brauhaus. It is the climate that makes Swakopmund so attractive – especially for metropolitans suffering from the heat. When it's 40 degrees in summer, the Benguela Current cools down the water on the cost to such an extent that temperatures in the region hardly rise above 25 degrees. Now, at the end of the winter, there is also fog too, so you do not have to worry about getting sunburnt.
After the legendary desert safari with Tommy, we are longing for the warmth, so we quickly escape the city towards north. First of all we visit the seal colony at Cape Cross. Up to 100,000 Cape fur seals bustle on the rocks and are a mighty scene for eyes, ears and nose.
Afterwards, we reach the highlight of our journey, the Etosha National Park. It is half the size of Switzerland and offers the highest concentration of wild animals in Namibia. Besides the real “Big Five”, there are more than 130 species of mammals in the national park, such as giraffes, zebras, gnus, hyaenas and wild dogs. Now, at the beginning of September, at the end of the dry season, the animals present themselves as if on a silver platter. The vegetation is barren and away from the man-made waterholes, the animals would not find a drop of water. Man-made waterholes? Yes, in contrast to the Serengeti, the entire national park is fenced in. Animal hikes to the best hunting grounds and waterholes are no longer possible.
All senses are finely tuned. Which animal will be the next to step out of the darkness and to the waterhole?
In Etosha, there is the same overnight trick that there is in Deadvlei: if you sleep in the park, you have an extra hour to watch animals in the morning and in the evening. Everybody else is in a rush when the light is the best. We try both ways. We spend the first night at the fantastic Etosha Safari Lodge and the other three nights inside the park on two different camps. We especially like the Halali Camp, where an illuminated waterhole makes exciting animal watching at night possible. It's like in a play at the theatre, one after the other the animals take to the stage – first the rhino, then the zebra and then the elephant. In the cold of night, all rivalries of the day seem to have been forgotten. All are respectful of each other. In addition, the bright to dark contrast demands a special alertness, so there is always one of them on watch while the others drink. The animals in the spotlight are also careful not to make any noise so that any carelessly lond step of a predator in the undergrowth would reveal its presence. We sit there in awe. All senses are on edge. Which animal will appear next out of the darkness?
Not without goosepimples, we finally climb inside our roof tents and keep listening to the night. Although we know that the camp is secured with an electric fence, each howl of a hyena makes us shiver and, oh my goodness, when the lions roar. Its tone frequency travels for miles and is difficult to locate. And the fence did not seem impossible to overcome. How else can you explain the elephant dung that is all around our car?
Let’s just say it was lucky that we did not get eaten by a gecko nor a lion. Or was it thanks to the great travel planning? Anyway. There is room for improvement in one area however. Because when we take the flight back home the following day, there is still the leopard missing on the Big Five list. So I guess we need to return some day.
Seven great reasons to go to Namibia
A landscape like the Southwest of the USA without the time difference, currency factor and entry reprisals – Namibia has long since been amongst the top 10 long-distance travel destinations. And they have real lions.
1. Vastness: Have you ever driven 50 kilometres in one straight line towards an endless horizon? Travelling through Namibia clears your head properly.
2. Perfect weather: Long weeks of fine weather are the rule and not the exception. In addition, there is a perfect temperature change between the day and night. Nice and cold at night for a good night’s sleep, and a rise in temperature to up to 30 degrees during the day.
3. Easily reachable: Condor offers direct flights twice a week from Frankfurt to Windhoek. You arrive in Africa overnight and without changing your biorhythm.
4. Relatively budget-priced: According to the OECD’s calculations, the holiday-euro in Namibia is worth double the amount back home.
5. Superb fauna: The Etosha National Park and several private game reserves offer neat safaris.
6. Fabulous accommodation: Whether it is a lonely campsite or a luxurious lodge neatly adapted to the landscape, the Namibians know how to live well. If you prefer to choose one host, then have a look at the accommodation provided by Gondwana Collection which is spread across the country – and they are number one in their industry in terms of sustainability.
7. Experienced travel agencies: Agencies like Diamir from Germany (www.namibia.de) have decades of experience and offer individual travel programs and special family tours – which are often cheaper in the end than booking everything individually. Barbara Grimm makes the reservations for the campsites in time on firstname.lastname@example.org. And the Namibia Tourism Board sends out a big info package for free on www.namibia-tourism.com/infopaket/.
16. Mai 2017, Text: Michael Neumann