African safari journal – one year ago – a travel day

June 15, 2019 – Yesterday was a travel day. We had an 11:25 am charter flight from the LLT airstrip [Note from 2020: That’s the Leroo La Tau safari camp, where we stayed for a few days], and could have jammed in a short game drive, packing and breakfast before then, but it would have been too stressful. Instead we decided to sleep in, which turned out to be 6:30 am for Julie and 6:55 am for me. We were done sleeping. Noteworthy because at home we can sleep hours later if we don’t have to get up. We packed, had breakfast and killed about two hours reading and such before we left for the airstrip at 10:40 am.

The resort staff, who adore Julie, packed us bag lunches, which was lovely but more to carry, so we had mixed feelings about that.

A guide named Bones, who provided star lessons two evenings earlier, was our driver and with many heartfelt farewells to the staff, we set off for the airstrip. After three days together it felt as if we were leaving friends, as we had before at Camp Xakanaxa.

We drove along unpaved roads. The Toyota moved slowly and fishtailed on fine white sand like beach sand that buried the road. A few times Bones stopped to shift gears to get us out of a particularly deep sand drift. A couple of times he hopped out of the car to inspect the wheels and undercarriage. We slowed down once to avoid goats in the road, and another time to avoid cows. We arrived at the LLT airstrip, with its only building a structure that looked like a Little League dugout, along with fire protection equipment. The airstrip was just a long narrow rectangle of flat packed dirt a thousand or so feet long. We had been told earlier that sometimes flights were delayed because animals wandered out on the runway, and sometimes elephants dragged brush on the runway, which had to be cleared for takeoff and landing. But none of those things were problems yesterday; our plane was waiting for us, a four-seat prop job with the pilot standing beside it. The pilot was named Myello; he had joined us for breakfast earlier. We climbed in the plane and he warned us that the plane was light and the skies were windy, so we might be blown around a bit. That concerned me; I don’t do well with vertigo; my brain shuts down in panic mode. Myello taxied us to the far end of the runway. He consulted a computer printout folded in his hand. We were sitting immediately behind him in the snug little plane, closer than the backseat passengers to the driver of a car. He held his hand behind him to show me a line of text demarcated with his thumb; I saw Julie’s surname, Brown, with letters and numbers in a row. I looked at it blankly. He gave me a querying look. We couldn’t speak because the engine noise was too loud, and he was wearing a headset. The line of text was clearly an important question, but I had no idea what it was. I smiled and nodded and gave him the thumbs up. He appeared satisfied. He reached the end of the runway, turned the plane around, paused and gunned the engine. The plane lunged forward and we lunged into the air. [Note from 2020: I wonder if bush pilots do that pause-and-then-floor-the-accelerator for dramatic effect?]

The warning about rough skies proved overstated. Our half hour flight was relatively smooth and comfortable. I looked out the window and photographed the desert. The desert gave way to our destination, the city of Moun, which is more of a town of a few tens of thousands of people. I could see houses below us like ordinary suburban subdivisions, but with apparently unpaved roads.

(Click the photos for a bigger view)

Moun has a proper, but very small, airport, with a tower and many commercial planes lined up and a terminal where we were met by a porter and representative of our travel company, who together helped us get our bags checked and get us through customs. The porter disappeared before I could tip him. I didn’t tip the travel company representative, although now I think maybe I should have. [Note from 2020: Tipping was a mystery in Africa. I just gave money to people at random.] The terminal has a bare-bones but comfortable cafe, where we had $5 water bottles, attempted to get on the WiFi, and waited for our flight at a gate that looked more like a bus terminal than an airport, crowded with what seemed to be backpackers, safari travelers like us in khaki and olive green, businesspeople – a couple of them tapping on laptops – and just regular people taking a flight.

Our flight to Johannesburg was a regular commercial flight, same as any intercity hop in the US. Again, our travel agent arranged to have a porter meet us at the gate, who escorted us and helped us with our bags through customs and deposited us at the CityLodge hotel, located inside the airport, where we spent our first night in Africa 11 days ago. By now we felt like Africa veterans, light years beyond the greenhorns we’d been when we arrived. We’d faced down lions and hippos and elephants and the aggressive porters who hang around the airline check-in desks (completely different than the lovely porters who’d met us at the gate when we landed – we’d have another encounter with the check-in variety of predator the next day).

I had been looking forward to returning to the airport hotel, to enjoy a restaurant meal, sleep in a climate controlled room, and use reliable WiFi. But the room was too warm, the food was mediocre at best and the service was slow, and once I’d spent 15 minutes on the Internet I was done with that, though I did leave my iPhone and iPad connected to back up photos to iCloud and Flickr.

We discovered we were able to check luggage at CityLodge until we returned for our final night in Africa before going home in 10 days. For some reason the desk clerk on our first night 10 days ago told us we couldn’t do that. Huh? Julie insisted we buy a cheap duffle at the airport shops for that purpose, and we did. I filled it in part with unnecessary electronics, including a power brick, several electrical adapters that are lightweight but relatively bulky, and a noise canceling headset, also lightweight but bulky and unnecessary until my flight home. Julie checked clothes and a travel pillow and backrest for the flight home. I estimate we cut our travel weight by about 25% and I am delighted by that.

And now we’re on a commercial flight to Windhoek in Namibia, eager to get back to the bush and resume our holiday.

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Anton, our driver, takes us through Windhoek. He says it’s a city of about a half-million people, only 29 years old, built because it’s a crossroads between other Namibia cities. It’s the nation’s capital, and also seems to be an industrial town. Seems relatively quiet for midday. [Note from 2020: Wikipedia says Windhoek was founded in 1840, abandoned, and then founded again in 1890. I remember it felt more like a large town than a city of a half-million.]

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We were taken on a long, 3.5-hour drive from Windhoek to the Afrikats lodge, which was our next destination. The highway is rural between towns, mostly devoid of human construction, flat and well paved and maintained, two lanes in each direction narrowing to one each way. In towns we see construction, a sign of affluence, alongside poverty, people living in shanty villages. We see warthogs and baboons on the side of the road. Once or twice we pass big clusters of shacks and some tents forming bazaars of traditional crafts.

We drive through mountains. In other places the desert is flat enough to see to the horizon.

It is a long drive, much of which we sit in silence.

[Note from 2020: It was a looooooong drive, in an air-conditioned modern minivan, more comfortable than but not as interesting as the Toyota safari vehicles. Later, when we returned to the US, we asked our travel agent WTF she booked us for a drive rather than a short flight – Afrikats has an airstrip a few minutes away. She said the flight would have cost literally thousands of dollars US. So, yeah, the drive was a good idea.

[Also: I was puzzled during the drive by the juxtaposition of prosperity and poverty – new city construction immediately adjacent to squatter camps. A few days later, one of our guides told us the squatter camps were populated with people who were coming to work on the construction.]

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We stopped at a Shell rest area to stretch our legs and wash up. All variety of people there, very busy. We saw several stout middle aged women wearing traditional clothing, flowing print dresses with two-part hats representing animal horns. A skinny man approached Julie to try to sell wooden beads bigger than golf balls. She has difficulty brushing him off.

[Note from 2020: The dresses are traditional women’s clothes for the Herero, a Bantu ethnic tribe of about 250,000 people. The dress is based on colonial German women’s dresses. Photos and more information on Wikipedia: <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Here…>]

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Mitch Wagner @MitchWagner