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Ngepi Camp: Caprivi Namibia

The Ngepi Camp sits at the beginning of the Panhandle of the Kavango River which flowing from Angola dumps into the vast swamp known as the Okavango Delta – a vast wildlife reserve of wetlands and bush, and the largest Most of the delta sits in Botswana but here at Ngepi camp we spent a few days riverside contemplating our next move and schedule. For me, it was clear I needed to wait for my DHL package in Moan. I would also spend countless hours trying to get through to the Namibian Post Office trying to track down the package Johnny “A” sent me from California with my Apple Leopard disk, back up video tapes and a few small odds and ends. I wonder if I’ll ever see this package.

But now I am riding with another. Before heading off on his two month odyssey, Ronnie shaved his head. And he’s not planning on shaving or getting a hair cut until he returns to South Africa. By the time I met him in Windhoek he was sporting a near crew cut and the salt and pepper of his beard provided the texture and gave him a rougher look that was softened by his easy smile. When he was just a child his family moved from Brazil to South Africa and after spending the mandatory two years in the South African army in the intelligence unit, Ronnie confided that he spent most of that time hear near the Angola border during the Southwest Africa (Namibia) Angola war – a senseless war that crippled South Africa’s economy but provided much of Namibia’s infrastructure.

An early riser and always with a cigarette in his mouth, Ronnie is a veritable encyclopedia of flora and fauna. We took a sunset boat trip down the Okavango River in search of evidence of wildlife and between the guide and Ronnie were treated to hippos playing and guarding their territory, monkeys, egrets, fish eagles, crocodiles and malachite-headed kingfishers and a slew of other birds. But what made our Ngepi Camp experience were the treehouses we stayed in. With a solid wood floor, reed walls and thatched roofs these en-suite tree houses were complete with bathroom, running hot water showers, electricity and mosquito nets. Now in the heart of malaria country I must take all precautions to keep from getting chewed by those nasty buggers. I’ve learned that the malaria-carrying mosquitoes aren’t those that buzz annoyingly in your ear as you try to sleep or enjoy a cold beer. Nor are the malarial mosquitoes those whose bites itch and raise red bumps on your flesh. No, these mosquitoes are silent and somewhat itch-free. I’ve been taking the mefloquine for nearly three weeks and in these humid evenings by the lake give myself a shower in “Jungle Juice” with its 100% deet formula. This stuff can’t be good for you. It’s like putting kerosene on your skin.

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The inside of my treehouse at Ngepi.


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Ronnie’s treehouse as viewed from mine.

It’s hard not to rise early when staying in a tree house along the Kavango river. The house is wide open. The birds begin their morning song as the red ball rises from the east casting orange, red and muted yellow hues reflecting in the river while silhouetting the the briny branches of thorn trees and river reeds. And at night the groaning and sneezing sounds of hippos who’ve left their safe haven in the river to munch on the bush nearby. All is quite at Ngepi Camp and it’s like camping — with conveniences. Throughout the sprawling camp are a number of oddly named and uniquely designed and situated ablutions (bathrooms). One is located in the garden of eden, for example and another features tandem toilets appropriately named “His and Hers”.

Our stay at this staple camp in the Caprivi Strip of Namibia happened upon the slow season. As such, we shared the somewhat large camp with only a handful of other guests. This could have been the perfect Caprivi stop if it were not for the somewhat indifference to service that permeated from the manager down to the general staff. And maybe this attitude stems from the fact that there are few options for accommodations here and during peak time the place might be lucky to be fully booked. But there are other camps and while they might not have tree houses I would hope that service would be better. If not, there’s a huge opportunity here.

Not that the folks at Ngepi weren’t friendly or fun. No, on the contrary we found the staff to be enjoyable, fun and knowledgeable. But little things that are dictated by management policy with no room for flexibility that irked both Ronnie, me and other guests staying at this time. And the place is not cheap, either. Hoping to catch up on my writing and photo editing, we woke up the first morning to no electricity. Politely asking if the generator could be turned on, Duncan the manager informed us that the generator was very old and the owner was trying to get as much life out of it before it died. He was instructed not to turn it on until after 4pm. Meanwhile, food, beer and other perishables in the stores of the kitchen could be comprised. For me, I looked forward to enjoying these peaceful surroundings to inspire me. And while the lack of electricity didn’t affect my inspiration, my ability to leverage it would be limited.

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Above the toilet of eden while his and hers below help define the vibe at Ngepi Camp. Too bad the service didn’t match up to the atmosphere.


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Sunrise over the Kavango River on the Caprivi Strip in Namibia.

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Hello Allan!

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Hippos will show you their teeth and let out a big groan if you infringe on their territory.

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Masked Weavers looking to nest and eat.

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Tired?

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Hippos block the channel up river.

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A Malachite Kingfisher hanging in the reeds on the Kavango River.

Then when we ordered breakfast we reviewed the menu at a counter in the kitchen which sits just behind the wall separating the kitchen from the bar. The bartender simply walks through an open archway behind the counter to pass through between kitchen and bar. The only two customers in the kitchen and with the bartenders attention we ordered breakfast. But we were told we couldn’t order breakfast in the kitchen we would need to go to the bar. Scrambled eggs, some toast and ham. Simple enough. But no. We had to walk around to the bar where the same guy, our bartender, would then be able to take the order. Then he would walk back to the kitchen and tell the cook what we wanted. It seemed silly that he couldn’t write the order down in his book and was adamant that we walk around to the bar to make our order.

At lunch we ordered toasted sandwiches. Of a half dozen ingredients or so the menu asked to choose three. I felt like four: ham, cheese, salami and a slice of tomato. Sorry. You can only have three. We asked nicely. Then we asked again. Just throw on the slice of salami. After the bartender (yes, we were ordering at the bar this time) was flustered with Ronnie and my joking and repeated request for a simple fourth item to be added to our sandwich, manager Duncan appeared out of his office with a pen and pad and asked what we wanted on our sandwich. “Whatever you tell me I going to choose the first three,” he remarked while asking us to ease up on his staff. Never did anyone suggest that the salami could be included at additional cost, which I would gladly have paid. Nope. The rules were set in stone and there was no flexibility.

Dinners were fixed price/fixed menu meals. And they weren’t cheap. The meals were fair and portions small and allocated. Upon checkout we discovered we were charged for an additional bottle of wine we never drank. Needless to say the setting, grounds and accommodation at Ngepi are fantastic. But the service and management policies unfortunately overshadowed the experience and left us only remembering what we didn’t like about Ngepi Camp. And while the place tries to ooze a cool and laid back attitude which they try to communicate in their “Get A Life” tagline or slogan, I think it’s Ngepi Camp who needs to get a life and work on customer service.

Quest For Water In Kaokoland. Back In Time With The Himba

The small settlement of Opuwo sits just south of the Angola border in Namibia’s Kaokoland. Due to its harsh terrain including bush, desert and mountains, this part of Namibia is more rural and seems somewhat trapped in a time warp, largely due to the presence of the semi-nomadic Himba people. In what might seem movie sets for pre-colonial Africa story or a National Geographic special, Himba villages are populated by tall people with striking features wearing the same traditional dress they’ve done for centuries.


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The Himba people are beautifully sculpted and skin is protected by ochre and butter/animal fat.

The women rub ochre mixed with butter, animal fat or petroleum jelly to protect their skin from the harsh desert conditions. Men use dusty dirt. They’ve resisted traditional dress opting for cooler and more comfortable short skirts, loin clothes and adornments of shells, beads and iron. The women weave animal hair and caked ochre in their hair and are perennially topless. Small fires in their traditional huts of sticks, mud and dung provide a smoky fragrance that they use to treat their clothing and blankets. Chased to this part of Namibia and southern Angola in the 18th and 19th centuries after losing ethnic battles with other African tribes where they live now somewhat isolated and wander the pastoral lands in search of water and vegetation for their cattle and goats.

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Those that are ‘lucky’ enough to live near Opuwo experience and minutely participate in the “western” world.

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Villages are simple, dry and very real.

IMG_3097_2.jpgAnd while the town of Opuwo sits at the center of this stark and sparsely populated region, surprisingly one can find modern society conveniences such as internet, cell phones, a supermarket and more. And wandering through that supermarket the unmistakable smoky fragrance of those Himba women alerts me to the fact that these people commingle in this modern society but have resisted modernization. Some live in semi-permanent villages while others are nomadic and move where they can find water. Which for the pa st few years has been difficult.

A scant 20 km outside Opuwo and its modern conveniences we searched for villages where we could bring water, corn meal, sweets, aspirin and other items which we purchased at the local market. Taking along with us Willy, a guide we found in town, he suggested we stock up on supplies and bring to the villages as an offering and request permission to visit. The Himba don’t speak English so Willy provided the necessary translation. The first village we visited was a permanent settlement of a half dozen structures with neither electricity nor running water. The daily task of the women of this village is to walk 8km with jugs, fill them with water return and do it again. Morning and evening. Other villages are much further from a reliable water source.
At a temporary or roving village we visited the water source was far away and over difficult terrain. Too weak to stand on its feet, a goat lie under the semi-shade of a dying tree moaning. I was sure it would be dead by morning. No water. And nothing to graze on because the sun cooked any pasture from which it could eat. And huddled under a makeshift shelter of plastic sheeting, blankets and sticks nearly twenty women and children just sat trying to grab shade in the heat of the day. IMG_3082_2.jpg
There were no men in any of the villages we visited. Out tending to livestock, looking for food or building materials. The daily life of these people is harsh and difficult. But they seem so happy. And while many may never visit the Opuwo, they are aware of the existence of a life vastly different from theirs. But they barely use currency instead trading crops, animals and artisan crafts for trade.

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This shell is the most sought after adornment by women and worn for special ceremonies.
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Care is taken to fix the hair which also protects the scalp. Note the loin cloth on one of the children.

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This girl posed and posed. I have 10 photographs of her. Maybe more.
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The matriarch of the village.

In the states I turn on the tap and water cometh. Hot or cold. It’s even drinkable (barely). I carry about four battery charges on my bike and at home in the states I’m sure I use enough electricity to power the simple needs of a dozen of these villages. Taking for granted what I’ve become accustomed to and rely on, I find mostly the lack of water the most disturbing eye-opener of my journey through these lands. Sure, it’s not only here. The desert of Northern Peru and Northern Chile come to mind. And while water is the lifeblood of rural settlements and primitive peoples I’ve encountered in South America, Asia, Eastern Europe and Africa. But in this blazing heat and stuck in the driver’s seat of my rented Toyota Condor, during my Himba visit I chugged nearly 2 liters of bottled water which I purchased at the market in town. And when finally leaving one of the villages the young children crowded around the door of the Toyota stepping on their tippy toes peering into the cab and spotting bottles of water on the seat and floor and eagerly grabbing for them. This, after we’d already given them several liters. One boy just wanted a sip. Another asked if he could have just the empty bottle. The happy faces I’d seen while visiting their camp turned sad and full of wanton when they saw water which they couldn’t have. I wanted to give them all of it. But we were headed yet to another village. Had I kno wn. Had I thought. Water. Simply water.These kids are hiding from the heat of the day under a temporary house of plastic sheeting and blankets.

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This goats demise likely the result oflack of water and sparse vegetation offers no space for grazing. The Himba people dry the meat in the trees.

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This is one of the nomadic roaming group’s villages.

These people have adapted and after four years of drought there’s little water. Their lives are spent wandering this hot and hostile land. They’re able to survive on less water than most. But they need it. Desire it. And spend their lives in quest for it. Water. Simply water.
Then I thought of my waterlogged riding days through South Africa, Northern Brazil, Ecuador and Bolivia. It’s either not enough. Or too much. And when the kids hands reach out and ask not for a coin or money for food, but for water, simply water, my mind spins. Water. Simply water.
The the next village we gave them every last drop we had in the Condor. We had money in our pockets, but only a bit of water. I wished we had more. Water. Simply water.

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