Namibia – To SWAKOP and back.

Catriona Teed-Rollo, who had boarded with us during her days at school at Delta Waters International School, arrived by bus from Gaborone to spend a few days with us in Maun, Botswana, at the end of April 2002. She was hesitant to accept our invitation to join Sheila and I on a trip to Swakopmund, Namibia, as she told her mother that she did not want to spoil our second honeymoon! With Pat Hagan’s daughter Kirsty Hagan to keep her company, we went to Namibia for ten days. The newly built tarred road from Sehithwa to Ganzi was a pleasure after the nightmare rutted track to the east of Lake Ngami that it replaced.

We crossed into Namibia at Mamuna, passed through Gobabis and approached Windhoek’s Eros Airport but I got lost trying to find the camping ground there, winding up at Windhoek Town Lodge where we shared a reasonably priced family room.

Frustratingly, the Windhoek shops were shut the next day for the 1st May Labour Day holiday, but we managed to contact Herr Maschke. ( See Gunfire and Lightening, posted 13th May 2016: Herr Maschke, remembered by the girls as Mr Mouse-catcher, was an ex-WWII Luftwaffe fighter pilot, and had trained and worked at the world-  renowned Hohner musical instrument factory.)

The old gentleman, well into his 80s, was an amazing character, who promised to repair Sheila’s 80-base Fonenelli piano accordion which she left with him as we headed on to the coastal town of Swakopmund. We got delayed in a pub in Usakos that had tempting draught-beer, biltong and boere-musiek, eventually arriving in Swakop as the sun set. We booked into a family room at the Erholungsheim Guesthouse, whose manager had incurred our wrath by making us wait for an hour before pitching up with the keys.


Swakop River Bridge construction, 1968.

In the next couple of days, I recognised a lot of the historic buildings and features of Swakopmund from when I lived there in 1968. However, the town had also grown so much that it was easy to get lost. While Sheila and Kirsty spent most of their time at the beach, Catriona and I were more easily enticed by the museum, and it was only in the last two days that the two teenagers actually got together to do teenage things like boy-watching and buying beads, but we usually all met up at the Lighthouse pub for midday meals.

One day we all went to the seal colony at Cape Cross; interesting as it was, all agreed that the most memorable aspect would always be the stench. On another we visited the aquarium in Swakopmund at feeding time, and also watched the pelicans swooping in for offal as fishermen gutted their catch at the small-boat-landing fish tables.


Swakop Bridge – articulated sections, 1968.

On a visit to almost equally smelly Walvis Bay and the fish-factories there, it was apparent that there was some constructional activity on the Swakop River Bridge due to the fact that it was closed to traffic. I had been involved in the building of this 1.5km concrete bridge thirty years before in 1968 as a technician, post-stressing the precast beams. When the others were at the beach, I could not resist a visit to the site and had a chat to the foreman in charge of restoration work. It seemed that due to the salt air, severe rusting to the rebar and cables had occurred through cracks in the concrete. What was interesting was that they were attempting a process of electrolytic rust reversal by running current through exposed iron. Unfortunately, the foreman could not explain exactly how this was supposed to work in concrete, although I believe it works well in a sodium carbonate solution

It was a thoroughly enjoyable ten days, culminating in retrieving Sheila’s beautifully restored piano accordion from Herr Maschke on our way home to Maun, Botswana.

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A Dozy Auctioneer

While my Redwood Holdings Secondhand Shop in Maun, Botswana, was still in operation, I decided to help augment the stock by becoming an auctioneer. I have always loved attending auctions, looking for bargains, especially building materials for the homes I have built.

Anyone that knows me would find the idea of me being an auctioneer ridiculously funny as I am notoriously slow, both in thought and in word.  However, in a small town with no auctioneers at all, I could be the fastest…

On enquiry, I found it necessary to travel to Gaborone to apply for a licence. I drove to Francistown, 500km east of Maun, then caught the train overnight to the Botswana capital, Gaborone, nearly the same distance to the south. My application meeting was to be in the conference room of a hotel there at 09h00. A few other business licence applicants appeared at intervals and the interviews eventually got under way.

trainsFinally, it was my turn to face some dozen government employees to answer their questions.

On hearing that I was from Maun, one enquired where I had spent the night.

“The Long Hotel,” I replied. This brought a puzzled silence.

“And where is that,” someone asked, eventually.


“The train from Francistown,” was my answer, which had them all laughing, and, except for one more question, my licence was a shoo-in.

“But we Motswanas do not buy secondhand goods, so who will attend these auctions of yours?” One imperious lady enquired. I explained that poor folk could not afford new stuff and that my little shop was doing a brisk trade. I did not mention that there was even a market for secondhand underpants!

Most of my auctions were held at the Maun Sec Maintenance Unit’s yard where I had my office at the high school, often helping the school get rid of its redundant furniture, lockers, etc. Sometimes I held them at the residences of leaving ex-pats and all were reasonably attended. Fortunately most of the patrons were honest wellmeaning folk, so that when I, the auctioneer, went into a brief coma, they would kindly remind me where we had got to with the bidding.

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Inventive Construction

2000, Bastion Construction.

My last month actually working for Maun Senior Secondary School was August 1999, but I ran a team we called Maun Sec Construction Unit to pass the profit to the school. After a couple of profitable contracts, it was decided to close it, (“We are a school, not a business.”) although headmaster David Tregilges agreed that I continue to use my office there in exchange for managing the school maintenance crew. I based my newly formed company, Bastion Construction, there.


Maun Lodge Chalets

I designed the car park and slope protection for the newly built Maun Lodge across the road from the school. Bastion Construction built two semi-detached houses for Air Botswana, three houses for Matshwane Primary School staff, a workshop for JJTyres.

MLodge chalets2We did the maintenance for Maun Lodge and built four thatched chalets behind the hotel. Several other houses and cottages kept us busy for the next few years, too.

Two especially interesting contracts, while not very lucrative, bear some extra detail in the telling.

A Concrete Figtree

Lars Tree 1Norwegian Lars Elvenes was, and still is, a roadworks contractor in Maun, building roads, airstrips and earthworks around Ngamiland. We met at the annual party held Fleming Olsen, a Dane who started and built Delta Water International School where Sheila got the post of Art Teacher. Several Scandinavian men chose to marry Motswana ladies and the couples lived in Maun, and we were honoured to be invited to the Olsen party several years running. It was Lars’ dream to have an elevated platform that would reach above the tree canopy at his home on the Thalamakane River from where he could mount a telescope to watch the stars.  After discussing this project each year, Lars eventually found himself in a position to start building. We decided on a concrete fig-tree.

Lars Tree braai platform

Looking down from Stargazer Platform onto Braai Platform.

With high tensile steel embedded in four widely spaced 1 cubic metre concrete blocks, I made ribbed roots come out of the ground and begin their trip to the heavens. Two metres above ground, Lars took me aside and asked if I could embed a Jacuzzi inside the trunk? With decking around it for sunbathing, of course. And conduits in the trunk for electric cabling as well as fill and drain pipes…

What a challenge! The first difficulty was getting the bricklayers to stop thinking straight lines and smooth surfaces. We shaped branches with chicken netting around steel, covered with geo-textile cloth filled with concrete and plastered with render coloured with pigment.

Lars Tree jacuzziAbove the decking is a staircase of flattened branches, leading first to a barbecue platform, then up to the stargazer’s platform. I built in several buckets with drain holes to serve as creeper plant pots.

Lars Tree team

Bastion Construction Tree team.






The other challenge was quite different.

Shinde Camp

Our architect friend, Julian Hair, was asked by Dougie Wright, the well-known hunter and safari operator, to visit Shinde Camp to solve two problems with their lodge dining room. It consisted of a deck in the tree tops, covered with a canvas arch, reached by a wooden walkway ramp. Just below it was a lounge stocked with wildlife books. The views from either platform over the Okavango Swamp, through the branches, was awesome. The birdlife and wildlife is prolific.

The first problem was that the decks, built on huge poles buried in the wet ground, would move considerably in the wind. Secondly, rain would be blown in under the arched canvas, wetting the guests. However, closing in the ends would cut out the magnificent view. Julian’s suggestion, that they put Perspex windows in, would keep the view but act as a sail and make the structure sway even more. So, unable to come up with a solution, he suggested to Dougie that I go and have a look. I was flown out to Shinde for a visit in late November 2001.

At the time, they had a tractor and trailer taking the long round trip via Kwai to service the camp with supplies as it was too wet for trucks. Log stays were suggested to brace the poles together, but the tractor could only carry a few at a time. I decided on four to lock the up-rights together, then diagonal wire bracing to anchor them. Old bolts were to get larger washers, and wire bindings to prevent further splitting at the old holes.

I designed three baby-carriage type awnings with Y12mm high tensile steel bowed rods encased in the canvas fixed to hinges which spanned the five metre width of the deck. There was a cord running from the centre of the lower arch to the upper, so that, in inclement weather, the awning could be lowered to keep out the rain, and raised again afterward so that the view was again clear. Two awnings were destined for the dining deck and one for the lounge.

The material was loaded on the trailer. When we heard that it had arrived, Sheila’s son, Nicholas Simkin, who was visiting at the time, and I were flown to the Shinde Camp airstrip and given a Meru tent for our short stay. While the camp canvas-maintenance lady and her industrial sewing machine tackled the awning covers, Nick and I bolted on the poles, threaded the four thick wires on every diagonal and proceeded to wind the wires into ropes which steadied the whole structure. It was backbreaking, skin blistering work, but as the staff were not allowed to depart for their Christmas break until the work was done, there were suddenly a lot of willing helpers.

Several years later, Dougie told me that it was all still working well, much to my delight.

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Kids No Longer


SANAE 1999 overwintering team, Ryan Earle, bot. left.

Unbeknownst to me my son Ryan Earle had applied to join the 1999 South African overwintering team in Antarctica. The first I heard of it was when, in August, 1998, after copious tests, physical, practical and psychological, he was accepted as the Mechanical Engineer. I was stunned and immensely proud.






Sheila’s son, Nick Simkin, got engaged 4th September 1999. In October Sheila and I drove from Maun, Botswana to my ex-wife, Greet, and her husband, Dennis Driver’s farm in South Africa to collect the furniture that my parents had left for me when they emigrated to Australia. We arranged to meet up with Nick, who was on a police course in Pretoria. He came north with his cousin, Andy Maling, to join us at Greet and Dennis’ place, then Andy’s younger brother Neville Maling arrived, too. They all had cell phones and it was the first time we were able to see these amazing pieces of modern technology at work, arranging meeting places, giving directions, rescuing someone whose vehicle had broken down. We even had a word with Andy’s twin, Chris, in California. It happened that this was around the time that my daughter, Nicci Earle was visiting him there.

We even spoke to Ryan at the SANAE base camp in Antarctica – nice day, he said; -20 degrees with sunshine!

From the states, Nicci went on with her travels to Canada. By December 1999 she was in New Zealand.

Timothy Simkin was working for an engineering company in East London, South Africa. We caught up with him as the family gathered in chalets on the coast in the resort of Cinsa to attend Nick’s marriage to Tracy on 22nd April, 2000, in the Amalinda Baptist Church, E.L. It was a good bun-fight, but the highlight was catching up with family.

Ryan, finally back from the unforgettable experience of Antarctica, told me that he and his girlfriend, Elaine van Pitten had gotten engaged. The wedding was planned for Sept. 30th, 2000. He was now employed by the construction company, Murray & Roberts.

While in East London, both Sheila and I took the opportunity to apply for our new identity documents (called a Book of Life) at the department of Home Affairs. Two amazing coincidences were that we ran into old friend Joey Barichievy, and then Sheila was recognised by a black lady with whom she had been friends as children together, growing up on her parents’ farm outside the city. They reminisced for ages!

After their wedding, Nick & Tracy came back to Maun with us, bringing 3 German Shepherd puppies, smuggled through the border. The two bitches were to become the foundation for some furry companions that only died out in 2016.

To attend Ryan’s wedding in September, we based ourselves with Greet and Dennis Driver again, on their farm near Nylstroom, joining members of both their families as well as Sheila’s. Sherylyn Driver, Dennis’ elder daughter, now a stunningly beautiful woman whom I had last seen as a chubby child, was back home after some time overseas. She and I went shopping in Warmbaths, had lunch and several beers and became good friends as she told me of her sometimes harrowing adventures in Europe. I was honoured to be a confidant.

Giraffes3Nicci was also back from her travels abroad, having earned her way as a qualified physiotherapist. Greet’s brother, my old friend Nico Jaspers, was over from Australia. After the wedding, Nicci and Nico followed us back to Botswana for a lovely visit to a camp in the Okavango Delta.

The wedding itself was held at one of those specialist venues just outside the city of Pretoria, the home town of Elaine’s family. Sheila and I sat with our friends, Bert and June Sabatier, and our clan of Nicholas and his cousins. We had our own table in a corner where we could enjoy each other’s company, catch up, and party.

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An Elephant’s kiss

July was the month each year that a group of, usually, four bulls came through from Nxai Pan to the Okavango Delta, passing our river home. The visit was usually at night; tearing down foliage near the fence and depositing their visiting cards. But in the morning there would only be the vegetative wreckage and the fibrous steaming puddings to see. In September 1999 a small breeding herd passed by with calves, using the nearby pool as a mud bath.

Kiss for Sheila 1994

Sheila Earle

An unforgettable invitation to visit Doug and Sandi Groves in the Delta, and overnight there in our tent demands a tribute and another note of appreciation. These two incredible human beings have given their lives to the care of three elephants.



I quote from other sources here:

The elephants at Grey Matters:
There are three trained elephants with Doug and Sandi at the moment; all are orphans from culling programmes:
Jabu is short for Jabulani, which means happiness; he was born in about 1986 and orphaned when two by a cull in the Kruger National Park, South Africa. He is described as a proud bull who enjoys leading this small herd – playful, dependable, and the most independent and confident member of the herd. He now stands about 2.9m tall at the shoulder.
Thembi, a smaller female, is about the same age as Jabu, and was also orphaned by a cull in the Kruger. She’s said to be smart and very social, and loves being the centre of attention. Originally a very insecure calf, she’s gradually becoming much more confident.
Morula came to Doug in 1994 as a maladjusted 17-year-old, lacking confidence and with a troubled background. Doug comments that she started off being exceedingly submissive to him and the other elephants, but then vented frustrations on trees. He adds that she’s gradually become more secure and relaxed here.

The Living with Elephants Foundation was launched in 1999. The charity is dedicated to creating harmonious relationships between people and elephants. Living with Elephants also works to secure the long term future of its elephant ambassadors. Elephants can live for 70 years so when Doug and Sandi adopted Jabu, Thembi and Morula, they knew they were making a life-long commitment to the trio – and that the trio would probably outlive the Groves by decades.

Doug's JumbosThe obvious bond between human and animals was jaw-dropping. Sheila and I were treated by Doug to walk with the trio as they browsed, explaining their diet, physiology and characters.

Doug 1994-Jabu

Jabu with Doug Groves

They are not beyond teasing their bipedal friends. I can’t remember who it was, now, but when they all went for a swim in a pool, one of them refused to follow the others out at Doug’s command, squirting trunkfuls of water and dodging to the far side of the pool to avoid Doug until she tired of the game, to Doug’s relief. It was time to return them to their boma and feed them mophane branches that had been cut and fetched from further afield for their evening meal. Their area was a bit denuded at the time.



To this day, walks with this trio can be arranged.

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Off the grid on the THAMALAKANE FAULT

By the end of 1997, the Power Tower was complete, the borehole dug by Water Africa’s jumper-drill rig, and the pump installed. It was driven by the solar panels on top of the water tanks on the Tower. I worked as site agent at Maun Senior Secondary School during the week, but at weekends, work on our house began. I set out the foundations and the position for the septic tank in July ’98.

River plot wall3The awareness that one is building on a seismic fault calls for some careful consideration. I designed the house, and later Sheila’s studio as well, on a series of separate columns. The roof rested on these on timber beams to allow for extreme flexibility in the event of movement. Walls were inserted with relevant doors and windows between the columns; unconnected to them to allow cracking in the corners if movement so wished. Two bedrooms, and a veranda overlooking the Thamalakane River, were built in the roof space, with big triangular cupboards in the eaves.

Mabinda are large mats woven from fan-palm leaves by folk that live up in the Okavango Panhandle. I ordered enough to nail to the roof timbers and cover the insulation as a ceiling; it looked great.

Maun flood - Redwood house island

Our island home, after the floods…

Half of downstairs was the lounge-dining room and open-plan kitchen, and staircase. The other half had the bathroom, a large open veranda, and a staircase leading down to the cellar. I was aware that the cellar would flood if the river rose, as it was almost certain to do when the drought of the mid-nineties relaxed its grip, and would filter the river water to form an indoor well. All goods stored there were placed up on high concrete shelves. (Lots of baked beans and Ecco corned beef for the End of the World.)

In August we cast the cellar floor.  The roofing began in April 1999. Tiling, painting, plumbing, and cupboards were complete by August. More solar panels were erected in locked steel frames on the upper north-facing wall of the Power Tower by December, and a small room built upstairs in the Tower to house the inverter and batteries.

Thereafter, I started to build Sheila’s art studio. The studio roof was completed by the end of March 2000, about the same time a surveyor was setting out the fence lines for the Oppenheimer Okavango Research Institute, cutting off the access road that we had been using. Of course we made a new track along the fence, but, at the time we moved in, our home was the only house within two kilometres, and the isolation was idyllic.

Then came the Cell Phone Phenomenon, a TV dish, and eventually, a neighbour…

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Gunfire and Lightning

BandSheila&AmandaIn mid December, 1999, Sheila Earle & Amanda Raw, musicians both, set off for Windhoek, Namibia, on a mission to have Amanda’s cello repaired. Herr von Zagen (Mr Once Again) had been a WWII POW held in, then, South-West Africa. After the war, he stayed on in Windhoek and played violin in the local orchestra, but decided that he wanted to learn how to build the instruments, whereupon he went to England to be trained before returning to South-West. Just the man to repair cellos…

Hohner accordion(His friend, Herr Maschke, remembered by the girls as Mr Mouse-catcher, was an ex-WWII Luftwaffe fighter pilot, and had trained and worked at the world renowned Hohner musical instrument factory. When Sheila and I returned to visit Windhoek on our way to Swakopmund for a holiday more than a year later, it was Herr Maschke who beautifully repaired Sheila’s 80-base Fontenelli piano accordion, although he naturally maintained that of course it was not in the same league as a Hohner!)

On their return, Sheila and Amanda overnighted in their tent at a resort near Rundu, a town on the Kavango River, as the Okavango is known there, which forms the border to Angola. They were awakened by sounds of thunder at dawn, with camp staff hurrying around anxiously, trying to assure the guests that it was not gunfire or the crump of mortars. And not a cloud in the sky.

savimbi-old-photoAt the time, Namibia was aiding the Angolan government’s skirmish with Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA who were still making the odd futile attempt at a come-back.

Despite their apprehension, the girls made it safely back to Botswana, and Maun, almost exactly coinciding with the news that our friends, Robin Grimes and Helen Doyle, holidaying in Namibia’s Etosha National Park, had been hit by lightening!

They had just settled into camp, sitting at the provided concrete-topped tables. Cracking their first beers, they watched the lightning flashing on the horizon as a thunder storm approached. Without warning, a lightning bolt came through the overhead trees and struck the concrete table top.

The table top literally exploded.

Robin was temporarily paralyzed from the waist down, burned across one leg, his groin and down the other leg where it cut his sandal strap. Helen was knocked unconscious; her elbow bone was chipped off, her arm embedded with flying concrete chips.

Fortunately, there were medical students and a doctor in the camp at the time. The couple were taken to the hospital in Outjo where they spent two days before returning to Maun. A few days later they came to visit us, asking Sheila to remove some of Helen’s stitches.

What a weird, horrid experience. How life changing was this for Robin and Helen, I’d love to know. Blessings, wherever you are now.

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