The driving route we’d just embarked on took us from Mowani Mountain Camp in Damaraland, northeast towards Etosha National Park. The landscape is sparsely populated until you reach the small township of Khorixas, but prior to that there’s a very interesting attraction worth pulling over for. The Petrified Forest. Mind you, interesting if you have a skerrick of curiosity for geology.
Many of the local Damara people try to lure you in off the highway by erecting signage depicting the petrified forest, and those that take the bait are led down a dirt track only to find a makeshift trestle table strewn with fragments of petrified wood and crystals with price tags attached. I wonder how many tourists are fooled into doing this?
The site of the actual Petrified Forest (or Versteende Woud) is properly signposted and requires an entry fee, providing you with a personal guide that walks you around the site for half an hour.
The trees of the Petrified Forest were uprooted some 200 million years ago when the continents were still joined, swept down flood plains, covered by sediments for around 200, 000 years and then subsequently uncovered by erosion. It isn’t a forest per se, but instead its a 65 hectare open veld that’s scattered with large and small pieces of petrified wood; the longest being 45 metres.
Besides the petrified trees there are many other live trees and shrubs that dot the rocky hillside. Twisted welwitschias all over the place, purple pod terminalias, hoodia cactus and the commiphora shrub that makes a rattling sound when the wind hits its papery bark.
There was a touch of relief whilst driving along the C39 when the gravel road suddenly became good quality asphalt. Driving on gravel is very much the norm in rural Namibia, so gliding over a smooth surface was absolute luxury!
We figured the town of Outjo would serve us for lunch. I could see on our map there was a bakery and a few lodges with restaurants, so when we drove into town we headed straight for Outjo Bäckerei to see what kind of edibles were on offer. Cakes, pastries, breads and a small menu with hot meals. Nothing seemed to grab our attention.
Our other option was over the road at the Farmhouse – a place to eat, stay and even pick up a few provisions. I kinda loved the look of it, as well, and listening to the girls that work there speak the click language made it even better.
The leafy beer garden out the back feels like a little oasis in the desert, complete with free wifi. These guys offer breakfast, a few burgers and salads, pizza, steaks and German-style meals that feature game meats. I think it was the game that got my attention, to be honest.
The bratwurst on sauerkraut (59) did it for the better half, served with buttery mashed potatoes and rich onion gravy.
I needed to try two things; the first of which were the snails in creamy blue cheese (49). There was a lot of liquid going on, not certain what it was, but it sure gave the snails a tasty bath with the blue cheese.
My other meal was a 200 g zebra steak (85), cooked beautifully medium rare and served with fries and salad. I’d tried many different game meats so far on this trip so it was difficult to ignore the zebra.
What’s it like? Well, tastes like beef and is paler in colour.
A couple of the desserts were calling our name from the cake cabinet – an apple cream cake (25) and a hefty wedge of blue velvet cake (30) – both of which went down a treat.
Our drive north from Outjo was almost two hours long before we arrived at the gate of Ongava Private Game Reserve – our home for the next two nights. Within a minute of passing security clearance at the gate we started spotting the local wildlife, in particular a couple of giraffe going about their own business on either side of the road.
These things are so majestic; quite timid, mind you, yet curious at the same time. So beautiful.
The 68, 000 acre reserve straddles the southern boundary of Etosha National Park in Namibia’s north. It’s a thriving region that’s home to top predator species and loads of game species, including the white and black rhino.
Perched on a small hill is Ongava Lodge, a comfy place to stay whether it’s for doing safaris in the private reserve or nearby Etosha NP. The main lodge sits at the top, offering panoramic views from its various decks where you can sit and watch the animals at the watering holes.
The chalets are built on the side of the kopje, nestled amongst the trees and rocks with views onto the plains and distant Ondundozonanandana Range.
Now try to pronounce that one!
Our chalet was located at the bottom of the hill (above pic), down a few flights of stairs just metres away from the watering holes. The room is airy and has an adjoining bathroom with double shower, plus an outdoor shower with views over the rugged landscape.
And yes, I did make use of the outdoor shower at least once. A bit weird when you’re all naked and lathered whilst zebra wander on past just metres away. My favourite part was the wrap-around balcony where we could sit back with a drink and watch an array of animals wander past only metres away.
At night it’s a requirement that you’re escorted to and from your chalet with an armed lodge representative. It is also home to wild animals, after all!
One of the best places to view the animals is up on the deck at the main lounge, bar and dining area. The watering hole is floodlit at night, so the animal spotting can continue all through the night.
Food-wise, the menu leans towards international flavours with some local game meats and specialty dishes thrown in. Lunch was buffet style – such as the fettuccine with basil pesto or bobotie with yellow rice.
This was the first time I tried bobotie, one of South Africa’s national dishes. You can see my version here, if you like. Dinner at the lodge generally consists of a starter, choice of two mains served with sides and one dessert. Think soup or fish cakes, roast leg of lamb or game fillet, cake or tart. All drinks and local wines are included in the room rate.
The activities at Ongava are pretty-much focussed on game safaris. An afternoon safari took us onto the plains below, searching for and viewing a broad range of wildlife. The highlight was most definitely getting out of the vehicle, forming a single line with armed guides at either end, and walking as close as we safely could to two rhino.
Talk about adrenaline! The guides made sure we were upwind from them, otherwise they catch your scent and get edgy or simply walk away. Their hearing and sight isn’t so sharp, but they did sense something as they stopped grazing and looked us squarely in the eyes. Time to move on, methinks!
You’re out in the reserve long enough to stop, get out and enjoy the sunset – with a few nibbles and alcoholic beverages, of course. How could anyone say no to sipping an icy gin & tonic in the Namibian wilderness?
The morning activity starts after an early breakfast at the lodge and drive out of the private reserve, into the neighbouring 22, 912 km² Etosha National Park. This place is considered one of the best game reserves in Africa.
Simply put, it’s enormous. The horizon shimmers in the daytime heat and gusts of wind kick up clouds of dust across the blinding, silvery-white ground.
It all seems lifeless but it isn’t long before you start to see thousands of animals from the many driving tracks. On the southern edge of the Etosha pan are many watering holes – most of them manmade – and it’s these that attract the wildlife; especially during the dryer times, such as when we were visiting.
The beauty of Etosha is that you can self-drive and do it in the comfort of your own car. The only difference is you don’t get a guide that knows all the tracks and can fill you in on any information you need.
Springbok seems to be the most common animal, but there’s no shortage of elephants, gemsbok, kudu, impala, giraffe and zebra, either.