Namibia: handy things

I had many things with me in Namibia… I’ll only mention a few things that either surprised me how useful were or I think that some people might not have them.

OsmAnd
OsmAnd is an Android/iPhone app (I’ve only used the Android version). I’ve written about it here before, and is very useful when planning trips.

Basically one can download countries off-line (like Namibia) and it’s based on OpenStreetMap data. In Namibia the OpenStreetMap data was more than enough and in some areas it was amazing! (for example it had the small walking paths in Okonjiima, with the names and everything).

OsmAnd has some usability problems so if you want to use it learn it before the trip and add as favourites the places that you are going to sleep and other interesting points.

A real paper map is still useful for planning and navigation but I think that OsmAnd (or some other off-line app) really helps to calculate times and distances, I like seeing the Km. left and Estimated Time of Arrival and I find the fact that are the cities as well very useful. Also with paper maps one would need more maps and guides.
Other option could be MapsMe, I haven’t tried this one.

Binoculars
Probably this is obvious to many people but initially I didn’t consider bringing binoculars. A week before going to Namibia I tested some in Europe and thought that could be useful and actually they were absolutely essential! I had the typical 8×40 (Olympus 8×40).
Actually I considered using very old ones, from when I was a child… and compared with a “proper ones” my old ones were making the objects smaller! It’s also important that they are wide-range so you can see many things at once.

Animal field guides
I’m sure that for many people a field guide is an obvious thing to have. Initially I didn’t consider bringing thick books for mammals, birds and snakes/insects (yes, 3 books!). I thought that this was insane. But once there I borrowed the books often, I read the descriptions and I played my game of «guessing the bird here» (if the bird was keen enough to pose for me about 10 minutes while I was browsing the book).

Sitting there, seeing an animal and then being able to pint-point which type of zebra (or other) was very interesting. Then my favourite bit was reading their behaviour: what they do, when they do, are they nocturnal? Are they are in a pack? How do they hunt? What do they eat? Do they hibernate? Migrate?

Namibia: lodges, how many nights

If you don’t want to read it all: our favourite lodge was Erongo Wilderness Lodge. Every minute there is special! (walking, the room or eating).

Erongo Wilderness lodge
As said before: it was our favourite one. The room was very good, the service, guided walks, food was very good, afternoon tea, etc. Only one thing: expect to see a lot of birds but not a lot of “big animals”. We saw some rock hyrax (very photogenic!), kudus, dick dicks but not many other mammals. Birds: many, and very pretty.

We stayed there 3 nights, and we could have stayed a few days longer: at least one more day in the lodge and then 2 or 3 extra days for one-day trips we could have taken.

They have a waterhole for birds. So it is important to take the binoculars with you when having breakfast or lunch… And the camera of course! One day it rained and then in the evening thousands of termites came to the restaurant lights! It was amazing! We could even see a lizard eating termites.

The walks were very interesting. Our main guide, Emanuel, knew the birds and their behaviour very well.

URL: http://www.erongowilderness-namibia.com/

Stiltz in Swakomund
I thought that in Swakomund we would be in a Bed & Breakfast style accomodation or some kind of hotel. We found the Stiltz in Booking.com and it was different to other accommodation. The view of the pelicans was very nice, the room was very good, etc.
URL: http://thestiltz.com/ (we booked this one on Booking.com)

Toko Lodge
We had our favourite night safaris there! Actually they were so interesting that we repeated (obviously the animals were different). Even if they didn’t explain many things the night safaris in Toko Lodge were our favourite ones: slow type, not feeling “in a hurry” like the Etosha ones. In Toko Lodge they didn’t need to cover big distances so they could take their time to see things, stop and watch instead of just spotting.

The swimming pool was clean, and the room was big. One of the mosquito nets wasn’t big enough for the bed though.
The food was good and we had to share a table with other people. I had the opportunity of giving Marmite to some non-British people who said that they love London (I mean, Marmite was a topic of conversation else I wouldn’t give Marmite to random people for the sake of it). Giving Marmite is awlays a hard-to-forget experience! (specially for the ones trying it for first time). By the way, they had a jar of Marmite, I didn’t bring mine.

They have a Himba village nearby, just a 10 minute walk. It was really good that one of the people working at the hotel lived there and he was our guide there. I didn’t feel like I trespassed into someone elses property and was spying but I felt that I was invited by someone to explain what was happening there.

Somehow this place missed some of the enchantment of the Erongo Wilderness Lodge but the night drives were good. I’d say that 2 nights is enough there: we stayed 3 nights but one day we went to Etosha and came back: we could have stayed in Etosha that day.

URL: http://www.tokolodgesafaris.com/

Etosha
Note that on the Internet there is lots of information about Etosha and you could read it for ages. But I found that the information is a bit pessimistic. I agree that Etosha lodges are not the best but I found them much better than I was expecting. And the eating experience was good (perhaps not amazing but they always had good salads). It probably was not as bad as described on the Internet because it was low season.

We visited Etosha Dolomite camp just for a lunch. It seemed really nice and cosy, but sadly we didn’t stay there (we planned initially to stay in Etosha Halali and Okaukuejo). Etosha Halali was very good, we stayed 2 nights and we could have stayed longer. The waterhole was accessible from the camp site which was very handy and nice, I could have been sitting there for ages looking at the animals (usually they come and go very slowly). It’s relaxing to see them!

In Etosha Okaukejo was good but note that we were there in low season. I can imagine that it’s very crowded in high season (the restaurant and all the places). At the waterhole… there is WiFi! Sit down there, relax, copy some photos, answer some emails all while looking at the animals. Excellent!

Okonjima
Last but not least the Okonjima Nature reserve. The leopards and cheetahs have collars so they can be found more easily. Note that the collars are not sending GPS signals as I initially thought would be, but they just transmit some beacons and then, if the guys are lucky can be heard using a walkie-talkie and a directional antenna. I thought that, even if the technology helps, it still has some level of explorer (if they sent the precise GPS coordinates would be perhaps too easy and would not be as interesting as it was)

Leopards and cheetahs cover very big areas so it’s very unusual to just bump into them, specially the leopards who like sitting under a tree or on a tree and not be seen much.

Lots of people go there to make sure to see at least some leopards and cheetahs in Namibia (there are wild dogs as well). Our guide was really good and explained many interesting things about the nature reserve, what they want to do, how they build it, etc. very recommendable!

They also have tracks for visitors to walk, up to 5 Km. if I remember correctly. They have an inner area so it’s possible to walk without being eaten by leopards and cheetahs. Then outside they have all the dangerous animals. Inside there are water-hogs and other interesting animals.

URL: http://www.okonjima.com

Namibia: everything is slow (and interesting!)

One of the things that happened in Namibia is that everything there is slow. It took a few days to get adjusted to that. People talking, check in, out, renting a car, filling up with fuel, buying from the supermarket… and the animals!

I haven’t watched animal documentaries for a while but I remember a few documentaries from the past. What I didn’t remember is how slow things are. How slow the giraffes are going to the waterhole for example. I remember arriving at a waterhole and seeing 2 giraffes far away slowly coming to the waterhole. If I were a giraffe I think that I would jog to the waterhole, look around, drink water, jog away. Well, it’s not this way! They walk very slowly to the waterhole (taking easily 15 minutes from where they were). One giraffe drinks, the other one still hasn’t arrived. Just to go to the giraffe drinking position it takes a few minutes. Giraffe drinks, stops, looks, drinks… another 15 minutes easily. Then the other giraffe also does it… they wait for each other. Then leave, slowly again, calmly… another 15 minutes. The giraffe show took at least 45 minutes .

This is the same with other animals, they are not in a hurry… hippopotamus, elephants, even zebras in the evening seem to act this way. This is something that I didn’t imagine based on the documentaries: where a cameraman spends months in the waterhole and shows the best pictures.

Namibia: I wish I had known

Earlier this year I went to Namibia. And I had such a good time! Obviously, like almost every first time going anywhere , there were some things that I wish I had known.

Ants
One of the things I wish I had known is that Namibian ants really go after Catalan nuts (and I’m not talking about me). I had a few nuts in my backpack (emergency food supply for London underground signal problems!). I left my backpack in one of the lodges and 2 days later I found thousands of ants in the backpack, they made a hole in the nuts’ plastic bag and started eating them. As a side note: this method could perhaps be used to grind nuts… they did a very good grinding it and was like dust, it was getting everywhere. We moved the backpack outside, threw the nuts away, cleaned it as well as we could and 2 days later there were no ants there. Phew!

Parking under a tree
Another thing that I wish I had known is that, well, parking under a tree with a social weaver nest (type of bird, amazing creature!) might not be the best idea. And no, it’s not a poo issue. Long story short: I parked there for a break and left the door open for a bit while taking photos of the very interesting birds, preparing the food for lunch. After lunch I sat down in the driver’s seat, closed the door, left the camera on the rear seats, got the keys to start on the car and when I looked at my feet I saw a snake next to them! And I was wearing shorts! It almost killed me! (of a heart attack!). For a split second I wondered if I should remain calm and open the door quietly to get out, or if I should jump over the gear stick to the passenger seat and go out that way (the passenger door was still open). Before I could make a decision I was flying over and going out in the wild way, not the civilized way. I still don’t know how but the snake didn’t bite me. We were outside, in the natural park, with the snake in the car but after a few minutes the snake went out by itself.

By the way, a social beaver came and started making an “alarm call” (I guess that they were saying “hey, watch out my friends, there is danger!”). But the other social beavers were curious: they actually came next to the alarm call bird to look at the danger. I wanted to tell them “no no… this is not working well, you have to go away!” but actually this was handy for us: it made the snake to go out of the car!

Another thing is the packing… and I think that I’m one of the very few people making this mistake. I was very afraid of mosquito bites so I didn’t pack any shorts and actually in lodges shorts were the best thing (I used my pyjama shorts that look like standard shorts). Not for walking in other places because of the snakes for example.

Termite mounds: do not stand nearby
There are some huge termite mounds, which can be more than 2 meters. Like good Namibia explorers stopped nearby and walked there to take a few photos (they look amazing!). But… it is not a good idea to get too close! Or, at least, not if the termite mound is not a live one! (and we don’t know how to know if the termite mount is alive or dead).

In one of our last lodges we read some information and they said that it’s dangerous to stand next to a termite mound… because if the mound has been abandoned then the ground nearby is unstable and it can collapse… and snakes usually live there.

Namibia: recommendations travel company

If you don’t want to read everything: all of this is to say that The Cardbox Box travel shop was amazing and helped us to organise our trip to Namibia. If you go to Namibia: don’t hesitate and use it!

When we started planning Namibia we were a bit confused: what to do, where to go, how long to stay… and then we had to make all the bookings.

Booking wise in Namibia: in many places the procedure is to send an email/web form and request the date the we wanted to check in and check out. Then after one day approximately (sometimes a few days) they answer say and “it’s available” or “not available but we suggest some days earlier/later” (or, in the Etosha national park accommodation they used to email in a few days saying “we are going to email you in a few days” and then they “oops, not available in this lodge but we will put you in another one). If the dates are available they sometimes send a Microsoft Word document and one should write the names there, check in, check out, tick the type of accommodation and write the credit card/debit card number for the payment (wow, yes!). Sign it and send it back. Then this needs to be done for each accommodation, let’s say that being there 2 weeks could easily be 5 different places (probably 7). On the top of this: do this for the car company, some activities, etc. (sometimes with an online payment instead of the Word document). For each one of it can easily take 30 minutes, so probably around 3 hours for all the bookings and then deal with small changes (move some booking with a cascading effect, etc.).

Then it comes the questions: is this too much driving? Do I need Namibian dollars or South African Rands? Should I stay in that place or the other place? Should I stay 2 nights or 3 nights?

So if you would like to have a local person answering the questions, making all the bookings for you, giving you recommendations (which car to rent, where to go first, etc.): we used The Cardbox Box and our agent (Rachael) was amazing! (and for the comments in TripAdvisor: they are always very good). She answered all the questions patiently, gave ideas from a local point of view, she accepted to do some small changes when it was almost all done (we had some problems booking one of the flights). We didn’t book all the lodges and hotels we dealt direct because we needed some more time to look at a few places in Swakopmund but it wasn’t as problem either.

Initially I was wondering about the price. They charge the same price as the places we booked direct. It’s really convenient to safe time instead of booking direct with all the dependencies (if this places is full then we should go there, but postpone one night that other place). After agreeing on the plan we paid in one transaction using an online secure system and they provided us with all the vouchers for the lodges. They also emailed a few tips what to bring and how to do things.

Star service, saved lot of time and gave us good ideas! Cardboard Box Travel Shop, Namibia

Icehack in Cambridge: report

A few weeks ago I mentioned that I was going to attend an Icehack in Cambridge.

This happened yesterday and I had good fun, learnt a few things (about British Antarctic Survey and about IPython-notebook), meet nice people, had enough food for dinner (and, OMG, even fresh fruit besides the mandatory hack-pizza).

Thanks very much for organizing it! I also found that BAS has many datasets (see BAS data) but was nice to focus on a few of them.

We did a quick show and tell (see it in a new page)

And the CartoDB result (see it in a new page)

As mentioned another times on this blog (here and here): I really enjoy using CartoDB CartoDB. It makes things that previously were complicated to do much simpler!

Icehack in Cambridge (14th March)

In 2 weeks, on 7th March 2016, the Cambridge Science Festival will start. It’s 2 weeks or science talks, workshops, activities… and hackathons! In Cambridge of course.

Many of the events are free to attend but require a ticket booking. Have a look at the webpage to see what’s available. There are talks about many things: physics, chocolate, astronomy, maths, etc.

One of the things that I’ll attend is the Icehack: discovering polar data. To signup use the Meetup page.. I think that the proposed framework will be quite Python based but it’s not needed to use Python for this.

I might try to use again CartoDB: I liked it and I haven’t used for a while. I’ll see what will happen. Join and do something ase well!

Slides benches at #geomob

Two weeks ago I mentioned that I was going to present the Benches app at #geomob London. Now I’m on the #geomob London wall of fame.

The presentation went well! The slides are available online. A few slides need some explanation but you can get the gist of the presentation.

FOSDEM 2016 in 4 days!

This coming weekend is FOSDEM 2016: the biggest conference (and it’s free) about Free and OpenSource in Europe (at least). It’s in Brussels and registration is not needed. Check the schedule and you might still be able to come.

#geomob London: benches

Some time ago I mentioned the Benches app iOS. See that blog post.

This Thursday I’ll speak about it on #geomob London. It’s free to attend.

Also, feel free to re-tweet it.