Guiding write
It made headline news: a young game ranger was attacked by two crocodiles and lost his left arm. Fifteen years on, Christiaan Bakkes has become one of Namibia’s most sort-after and colourful guides. Here, in an extract from his book In Bushveld and Desert: A Game Ranger’s Life,  he describes a safari on the Skeleton Coast.

 

From the word go things had gone well on this safari. It usually depended on the clients. A British honeymoon couple; an Italian fashion designer and his much younger wife from Milan. An American travel agent. With the British, you had to watch your step. Test them first. They’re unpredictable. Keep them where you can see them. They can sometimes be your best clients, but they’re the most erratic.


“I come from a family with a proud history of shooting Englishmen,” I once said to a British client, tongue in cheek. My remark was reported and became the subject of discussion at a council meeting. Fortunately my managing director, an English-speaking South African, was a man with a sense of humour. Apparently he exclaimed: “That’s the kind of man I want for the Skeleton Coast.”


Italians from the north are known for the generous tips they leave. They usually come from Turino, Parma, Milano or Bologna. Moreover, they are wonderful people. They show sincere appreciation for everything you show them and do for them. Americans who take the trouble to come and explore the Skeleton Coast are some of the best clients you can ever hope to meet. The British honeymoon couple were carefree and in love. He was an economist and she an attorney. Young and successful. The Italian, his beautiful wife and I clicked immediately. (Neither was I blind to the way she was looking at me.) The American travel agent had been all over Africa. He knew the industry and helped to make things easier. We became instant friends.


August is a rough month in the safari industry. There is very little respite. It was the end of August and I was having a tough time. As a plane landed to fetch the one group of clients, the next group would get off the same plane.


On the first afternoon we drove to the coast, where Mathias Koraseb died a hero’s death and lies buried among the driftwood on the beach. It was 45 kilometres from our camp, past Sarusasfontein, through the roaring dunes. The ice was broken when I led my clients up a dune and let them slide down slowly. Deep out of the belly of the dune rose the voice of the earth during its creation. At the foot of the dune my clients got up, breathless and amazed. The Namib had sung them its welcoming song.


We cruised between low dunes covered with ganna bush. From behind one of these a brown hyena jumped up and raced across the salt pan. I stopped and we watched him until he grew small on the horizon. To the west, the cold ocean roared. I stopped the Land Rover on the beach and we paid tribute to the brave Mathias Koraseb. Through the waves we saw the remains of his Walvis Bay tugboat that was wrecked here in 1942 when he had rushed to the aid of another boat. I placed a pebble on his grave. The safari had begun.


When the sun broke through the fog the next morning, we came across a herd of giraffe in the Khumib, upriver from our camp. Tourists from abroad who have travelled extensively in Africa are always pleasantly surprised to find giraffe in this stark landscape. This herd was extraordinarily productive. In the past three years five calves had been born, the latest arrival only two months old. They were outlined against the red quartzite ridges in the morning sun. We stayed for half an hour and unique photos were taken. The bond grew stronger.


At Otjivaurua the Himbas welcomed us warmly, as usual. No matter how I tried to play down a visit to the Himbas, the clients were always amazed by what they saw. The sophisticated traveller from Piemonte or Massachusetts stepped into another world as soon as he got out of the Land Rover at Otjivaurua. When we left an hour later, it was with exclamations like “magnifico”, “stupendo” and “fantastic”. Then there was a long silence in the vehicle. We crossed the Etendekas, passed Ohorondanomanga peak, and ate lunch under an ana tree at Epako. Now began our search for the elephants.


At Okanguma the Himba children came running from the cattle post. They pointed excitedly at the tamarisks downstream: “Ozondjou, ozondjou!” I gave them the fruit left over from our lunch, and the Italian woman caught my eye. We found them in the thickets: the tuskless cow with her tuskless daughter and the bull calf with the good ivory. The large bull, the second largest ivory bearer of the Hoarusib, was also there, and was showing interest in the toothless daughter. The mother felt it was a family matter and charged after the Land Rover as we drove away.


We found the cow with the crooked tusk, her calf and three young bulls at Okongombe Thembe vlei, where they were drinking in the company of a herd of cattle.There were also springbok and ostriches. On the slope was the cattle post and I pointed out the children walking through the veld with their dogs. In the setting sun, the elephants passed close to the Land Rover, the cattle filling in the background. This is the real Africa, I told my clients.


We spent the next day exploring the desert and the coast. The Land Rover sailed over the rolling dunes. Once a barchan dune caught me off guard and I had to dig us out. Springbok and gemsbok grazed all around us as we drove across the endless plains. I told my clients about the Strandloper hunters and we got out of the vehicle to view their round shelters. We drove on, across the salt pan, crossing Agaatberg to Cape Frio. At False Cape Frio we ate lunch. The day was windless and the sun glittered on the waves.


The guests were relaxing noticeably. The British couple took a long walk down the beach and the others sat on canvas chairs, staring at the ocean. At Cape Frio we walked among the fur seals. Fifty thousand of them lay on the beach, waddling into the waves at our arrival. Jackal patrolled up and down the beach.  When we drove back that afternoon, I knew: the safari was a success.

 

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