Epupa, crocodiles and being African
Updated: Feb 5, 2021
We pushed open the heavy dropper screen, allowing light to stream into the rustic hut.
‘This must be what heaven looks like!’ I raved.
From our right, a mass of grey-green water floated into the framed opening, just to be swallowed by an invisible chasm to our left. A puff of mist hovered above this spot, like a ghost bellowing its warning with an unceasing roar.
A slow-motion blast of moist air engulfed our bodies.
‘Hot as hell, though!’ Anthon chuckled, perspiration dripping from his forehead as he lowered the bottom flap outwards as well. The riverside of our tree-hut was now completely open from waist-height upwards, the lower panel forming a handy countertop.
I was still mesmerised by the drama. We were suspended between tall Makalani palms teetering on the edge of the Kunene River. Not twenty meters from us, it dropped into the narrow part of the hairpin gorge creating the Epupa Falls. Massive baobabs clung to boulders, their roots groping for support deep into the rock-face.
Across the water, on the Angolan-side, the lush palm forest in the foreground belied the barrenness of the mountains embracing the gorge.
‘This must be one of my favourite places on the planet.’
Water entrances me. Whether the ebb and flow of surf along the Cape Coast or the reverberation as it crashes over a cliff, it invigorates and soothes me.
‘Can’t wait to sleep with this sound tonight,’ I added.
‘We’ll have to open the windows on the other side as well. And hope for a westerly late-night breeze,’ Anthon inspected the possibilities. ‘If we tuck our mozzie-net under the mattress and sleep under damp kikois, we might survive the heat.’
‘Well, it’s all part of doing this trip in high summer, not so?’ I laughed. ‘Most normal people won’t choose January as the best time to travel all the way from Katima Mulilo along the northern border of Namibia.’ Thirst clawed at my throat. I wondered whether I’d left my water-bottle in Henry.
‘Let’s go and say hi to Koos, then grab something to drink on the deck,’ Anthon read my mind.
Koos Verwey is the owner of Epupa Falls Lodge. Nicknamed the White Himba of the Kunene, his leathery exterior hides his compassion for the Himba, the endemic people of the Kunene, who still live in harmony with this ancient landscape. This time we found him on crutches, having recently had a knee replacement.
‘Glad to see you two again!’ Koos’s piercing blue eyes twinkled above his bearded smile. ‘I’ve still got some errands to run, but we’ll chat over a dop tomorrow evening. Selma will prepare some T-bones for you. Just tell her when you’re ready.’
Koos was the first to establish a camping site at this idyllic spot in 1991. Through the years a few other camps opened their doors, but the distance from the main centres and the condition of the access roads had kept it pristine; a refuge only frequented by slow-travellers and a couple of overland vehicles. We would find out later that those days might, unfortunately, be numbered. One of the camps had just been sold to a large tourist chain selling beds by the busload.
As Koos left, Selma came out of the kitchen to greet us. ‘You’re the only guests tonight,’ she beamed. ‘When would you like to eat?’
We looked at each other. Though the idea of one of Selma’s T-bones made my mouth water, my thirst was more urgent. And the sun would soon be dipping behind the mountains.
‘As soon as the sun’s down,’ we agreed.
We pulled two chairs to the edge of the deck. Selma brought us large beer-mugs filled with water and ice.
‘I brush my teeth with water,’ Anthon complained. ‘Where’s my beer?’
‘You need to drink lots of water up here,’ she scolded, smiling. ‘I’ll bring your drinks when you’ve finished these.’
‘Thank you, Mother,’ Anthon joked.
Once Selma had obliged him with a beer, we sank back into our chairs.
’Do you remember the trip we made up here with the Pienaars and Hugo?’ he asked. ‘Didn’t your brother also come along?’
‘Yes, Riël also joined. And Jeannie, Hugo’s sister-in-law,’ I answered. ‘Wow, that was more than ten years ago.’
‘Let’s drink to wonderful camping trips!’ We clinked glasses, the last drops of orange sun spilling into our drinks.
‘I’ll never forget how Vincent wrapped a blanket over Arnie’s spare wheel when we camped at Mowani that first night,’ I smiled. ‘He joked that the mozzies might puncture the tyre, its tread was so low.’
Anthon boomed with laughter. ‘And how prophetic weren’t those words! If I remember correctly Arnie wrote off two tyres the next day.’
‘Hugo also had a flat. Only Henry behaved himself like a decent 4x4.’
‘We had to alter our route to go through Opuwo so that Arnie could buy an extra spare. Just for incase,’ Anthon added.
‘But it was also a blessing in disguise,’ I said, ‘as it gave us the chance to camp wild in that riverbed not far from Otjiu.’
‘We didn’t have much of a choice. It was getting dark and we were still very far from Opuwo. Riël, Hugo and Jeannie decided to share the large tent, to save time when we set up camp. We all just wanted to eat and go to bed, we were so tired.’
‘Remember the full moon?’ I asked.
‘I do,’ Anthon stretched out his legs, gazing at the sky where the evening star had just appeared. ’We were looking at the moon from our rooftop tent when that hyena started to howl in the middle of the camp.’
‘And Jeannie woke up terrified. She tried to wake Riël and Hugo, but they just kept on snoring. Apparently, she then pulled her sleeping bag over her head, hoping the animal would go for the snorers first.’
We looked out over the wide river. The West Wind had started to stir, the light breeze refreshing our damp skins.
Further up-river, campers had lit a fire for their evening meal. Seated on Makalani logs laid lengthwise along the river’s edge, they were also watching the last glow of day carving out the mountain tops.
Without any visible provocation, Anthon burst out laughing.
‘What?’ I asked.
‘Remember the last night we camped here with Arnie and them?’ he laughed again. ‘Refresh my memory?’ I said.
‘When that self-drive group of Italians pulled in next to us, as the sun was going down? They started to set up their little dome tents right on the river’s edge, much too close to us for our liking. So Arnie and I walked over to them to find out where they’re from, do our normal praat-’n-bietjie-kak-met-die-bure thing.’
‘Rings a bell,’ I said, ‘but I want to hear the entire story again. I like the way you tell them.’
I slumped back in my chair, resting my feet on the middle bar of the railing. Sipping my gin and tonic, I allowed his voice to draw me back into another era of our lives.
He obliged, enjoying his reminiscence.
‘One of the guys could speak a bit of English. “You see these logs?” Arnie said to him, pointing at the Makalani palm trunks along the river’s edge. He looked at us and shrugged his shoulders. “So? What about these logs?”’ Here Anthon put on a heavy Italian accent, sounding like a Mafiosi in a Francis Ford Coppola movie.
‘“They’re put there to keep the crocodiles out at night,” Arnie answered. This got the guy’s attention. “There’re crocodiles here?” he asked, concerned. I stretched out my arms in both directions. “BIG ones,” I said. Then Arnie pointed to an opening between the tree stumps, right between their camp and ours. “You see this gap here? That’s where they came out of the water last night.” The Italian’s eyes became large. I decided to add my bit and waved my arm in the direction of our camp. “See how our ground tents are far away from the river? That’s because of the crocodiles. We’ll only put our rooftop tents close to the water.” The man’s eyes nearly bulged out of his head. He turned around and released a barrage of Italian, electrifying his compatriots into action. The next moment it looked as if an anteater had dug up an anthill, with tents being pulled away from the opening and the water’s edge until they were all huddled into the far corner, a good distance from us.’
‘Now I recall it clearly!’ I sat upright and started to laugh as the memory became vivid. ‘You and Arnie came back to the camp, laughing so much we could hardly make out what you were saying. While we were sitting around our campfire, we watched our neighbours having something like two-minute-noodles on little gas-burners, then disappearing into their tents as soon as it became dark.’
‘Do you remember what happened later?’ Anthon chuckled.
‘I do. Three of the Italian girls joined us. They couldn’t resist the smell of the steaks we were grilling over the coals. Didn’t want to believe a word about the crocs. So you told them there were crocs, huge ones, but they didn’t like eating Italian. A bit later Stellie and I went to bed. You joined soon afterwards, but the two bachelors and Arnie had a ball entertaining the girls from next door with loads of whisky until late into the night. Luckily the noise of the water drowned out their laughter, so I slept like a baby.’
The aroma of grilling T-bone steaks reached us. Selma served us our dinner, then left for the night.
We were alone on the deck. The campers had retired to their tents, leaving a few embers to gleam faintly whenever a waft of wind brushed over them.
As the darkness became thicker, the universe unfolded overhead. Frogs and insects chanted in sync with the drone of the waterfall.
‘Being African is a state of mind,’ I said.
‘Let’s drink to that,’ Anthon agreed.
* * *
If you enjoyed this story, you will enjoy reading my book, ‘A yellow butterfly on an elephant’s foot.’
For more about me and my book, click here.
For more about Anthon, click here.
Should you want more information on Epupa Falls Lodge and Campsites you can access their website here.