Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Namibia: DIY Or Don't Do It At All

Sorry for the delay everyone! We've been with really poor internet connection for a couple of weeks now. But don't worry, we're doing well and almost done enjoying our time in Rwanda and Uganda (post and pictures to come sooner than later, I hope). We will soon be moving on to our final destination of Morocco. Hopefully I can blog and Tweet more often (so check the link here or the sidebar on this blog).

Keeping up with what seems to be the best way for me to blog this second half of our 6 months, here are my thoughts, experiences, notes, and photos from our time in Namibia. Please keep in mind that the collection of thoughts, ideas, and comments are at a point in time and do not capture the research, reading, and most importantly, reflection I've done on the experience after-the-fact.

Using collected magnetite found in the sand around the desert to leave our mark


The Namibian Dollar is pegged to the South African Rand, so the exchange is 1 to 1. Coming from Cape Town that's helpful because most places in Namibia will accept the Rand that I still have. The downside is that I won't have any Namibian Dollars as a souvenir. Haha.

There are only 2.2M people living in Namibia. The area is so vast, it makes the population seem sparse against the sprawling plains.

We have rented a 4x4 here for the next 14 days. All the reading we did said that a self-drive would be the best way to see Namibia, so we'll find out for ourselves. We have a Toyota Fortuner from Savanna Car Hire. It's outfitted with 2 spare tires and 2 fuel tanks as roads are a bit rough here and distances between petrol stations are long. We had an option to fit a tent to the roof but we opted to do other camps, parks, reserves, and specific hotels and trekking companies that would provide accommodations. It's going to be an exciting 2 weeks with plenty of driving.

The roads are demarcated with letters to indicate the quality of the roads. A road beginning with a "B" is a main highway and completely paved/tarred. "C" is a wife gravel road, while "D" is a narrower gravel road and less frequently traveled. We will definitely traverse all of the above.

On our itinerary is sandboarding in Swakopmund, then a cheetah sanctuary, trekking through the desert, and a game drive through Etosha National Park. It's the scenery we are after. Namibia is known for its natural beauty.


Swakopmund is a coastal town on the Atlantic Ocean that is primarily occupied by German transplants or descendants of German colonizers from many years ago. The primary business out here are in the mines and out at sea, either fishing or oil. It's quite a small town that's strangely quiet even though the locals were saying it would be very busy due to the national holiday coming up on Monday. People were looking forward to a long weekend. To us, the streets seemed fairly deserted with very little traffic. The only real time we felt a crowd of people was at The Tug, a local seafood restaurant that is certainly top notch.

On our first afternoon in Swakopmund we headed for Dune 7. Sounds like the location of extraterrestrials or something but it's just one of the tallest dunes in the area. Our mission was to hike up the dune for sunset. What an incredibly difficult task! I relate it to the stair master but twice as hard. Basically every step you take is just half a step since you slide back down a bit with the movement of the sand. But we got up there and spent a couple of hours marveling at the dips and curves of the dunes within sight. We climbed to the highest point of the dune and took tons of photos. It's definitely a sight to see. Just as the sun was coming down we slid back down the face of Dune 7 into the cooler shadow and made our way home thereafter. It was only a practice run for the next day of sandboarding.


Wow sandboarding was fun!!! I was initially scared and only wanted to do the lay down board but was somehow convinced to do the standup sandboard. It is similar to snowboarding but slower and much softer when you fall. The hardest part was walking your board back up the sand dune. As you can imagine, there are no lifts. It was a really good time still, and we got some cools photos and a video to boot. The owner of the company that took us out is actually an American from California. She came out here 23 years ago on a backpacking trip and never looked back. They even call her dune Beth's dune as she's the only one who operates sandboarding excursions down this particular slope.

That's Beth in the background with the doggie, Zack.

We also did the lay down board which looks like a laminated cork board. We rode it into a sand bowl and they clocked our speed. On our first run, Carolyn was gunned at 46kmph and I at 45kmph, though Beth thinks we were going faster and the kid operating the gun was a newbie and needs to practice using it. Beth thinks I was going well over 50kmph. On the 2nd run, I was clocked at 52kmph and Carolyn at 48kmph. Beth thinks I was even faster this time too.


From Swakopmund we traveled nearly 4hrs over a "C" road that was a combination of gravel, sand, dirt, and patches of tar. We drove through a variety of landscapes that changed as we got closer to Solitaire. We went from arid desert to areas of small bush to hilly curves to full on mountains. The colors changed with the road surface from a light brown to a yellow green to granite white / grey to reddish brown and a mix of everything in between. We found ourselves stopping in the middle of the lightly traveled road to take photos of the scenery along the way. And about 3/4ths of the way to our destination, we stopped at a sign in the road demarcating the Tropic of Capricorn!

We spent one night at the Solitaire Desert Farm using this as a stopping point on the way to Sossusvlei and Deadvlei where the biggest sand dunes in Namibia are located. The desert farm was amazing by nightfall. The skies sparkled with stars and the light of a crescent moon. It's awesome to just stare up at the night's sky.

The next morning, we took a tour of the cheetah sanctuary very nearby. It was a great look at some cheetahs that were cared for locally because of their inability to live in the wild. In this particular case, there were 7 cheetahs living here, one mother and 6 children (no longer cubs). The story goes that the mother was found as a cub when it's mother was killed. She lived in captivity since then. When she gave birth to her cubs, they were unable to be released to the wild because the mother was unable to teach the children how to hunt and what to avoid and the basic life necessities of a cheetah. So the 6 then-cubs were confined to the sanctuary from then on. It's a positive story because the human in us tells us that it would have been worse if the cats were left in the wild to fend for themselves. But the probable reality is that things like this happen all the time in the wild.


A short 2hr drive further south got us to the area of Sesriem. This is our gateway to Sossuvlei and the Namib-Naukluft National Park where we will seek out the sand dunes once again.

Sossusvlei is supposed to be a lake in he Desert but it is currently dry. (We found out later that it's only been filled 2x in the past 30+ years.) In the surrounding area are many sand dunes that are worth climbing, so of course we had to test our endurance and patience. With only a 2 liter water pack and a camera we embarked on what we would eventually find to be a really strenuous hike. We parked our car in the parking lot and took a short shuttle to our starting point. This shuttle in itself was an adventure. The 4x4 vehicle, an open air converted Land Rover, was equipped to shuttle 15 passengers to the start. It had to traverse sand that could easily bog down a non-4x4 vehicle. In fact we did see 2 suvs attempt the crossing, and they got stuck in the sand. Their passengers were all out trying to push the cars out. That was unfortunate. Anyway, we were told that a slow pace would allow us to arrive in 2 hours at the peak of the Big Daddy of all dunes. So we gave it a go. 3 hours later, really tired, cranky, and probably starving we made it to the peak. Not so intelligently we started our journey around 11am in the middle of the day. It's probably the worst starting time ever. We got all the heat and daylight with no cover from the pounding sun. We took a few photos and rested a bit at the top but knew we needed to get down. So in our brilliant minds we thought it would be easy to just trek down the dune face. Wow we were wrong again. Not only was it steep, but the sand was burning hot, to the point where our skin was probably paying for it. It was so hot we had to sit to stop the burn around our ankles. And by this time we were also out of water. The descent was painful. We had the sun in our faces and the heat on our asses. It took us nearly an hour just to get down to the dried up lake. And it took another hour to traverse the dunes to get back to our shuttle pickup point. By then, we were very dehydrated and extremely tired. Our bodies ached like we had worked out for hours. As we took the shuttle back to the parking lot, I couldn't hold on tight enough to the handrails in the vehicle and kept being jarred throughout the entire ride back. Luckily, we had a 5 liter bottle of water in the car and immediately consumed it. Within an hour we had drank 3 liters of water to replenish our bodies. What an experience. I've never been so dehydrated like that. At one point I thought we wouldn't make it back to the shuttle as the last one was at 4:30pm. And during the walk back I took a wrong turn and ended up having to climb over a dune that I shouldn't have had to. It was really the worst decisions we've made throughout our travels. Lesson learned, plan more carefully especially when dealing with the desert. As I always say, Mother Nature always wins. Whether it's water, wind, earth, sand, sun, rain, etc. you have no chance if you think you can escape the brutal punishment the elements can deal you.

The struggle is real. This is the stairmaster times 100

A look down at the pan

View from the top of Big Daddy


A short hour and 30 minute ride south west of our lodging at Hammerstein Lodge Namib Desert we arrived at our next destination of the NamibRand Nature Reserve. It's here that we joined the Tok Tokkie Trails. Carolyn found this online as one of the cool things to do in this area, the Namib Desert. The desert is supposedly the oldest in the world. It runs the entire coast of Namibia and takes up a wide strip of land creating a huge gap between the Atlantic Ocean and regular soil. Anyway, Tok Tokkie Trails is a company that offers up hiking trails on the reserve, over land through desert and over mountains to get a real feel for life in this geographic area. The biggest plus is the opportunity to sleep under the stars in the desert in nothing but a stretcher and sleeping bag.

A tok tokkie, or a beetle

We did the 3 day / 2 night variety of the tour and really enjoyed ourselves. Our group of 8 really became friendly. And we learned a ton from our guide, Sebastian, who is a native of Namibia, speaks 5 languages, and is well educated in the landscape, its animals / insects, the topography of the region (and many others), and is super hospitable. He was assisted by Anges (our chef) and Standly (our camp manager). The team was extremely warm and cared for our every need. We had nothing to worry about.

Our group was first oriented with life on the desert by attending a short informational session at NaDEET, short for... Here we learned about the importance of conserving water and energy and using solar power to cook meals. This particular camp was designed for school kids to teach them these important lessons. Schools from all over Namibia make the journey to NaDEET to get this education and bring it back to their communities. We basically got a crash course whereas the students (primarily 10-12 yrs old) would spend an entire week here really learning from daily experiences, data collection, and analysis. And then it was off to the desert.

Our first afternoon we only trekked for a short period of just under 2 hours. We got acquainted with the sandy terrain and caught our first desert sunset. Along the way, on both days, Sebastian identified various tracks of different animals that may have passed our route the previous evening or earlier in the day. Tok Tokkie is Afrikaans for "beetle" so as you can imagine, we spotted many different kinds of beetle. Other animals whose prints we encountered were oryx, leopard, fox, wildcat, mongoose, lizards, ants, spiders, and other insects. We also encountered a few different bird species along the way.

As we reached camp for the night, we were greeted with a tour of our accommodations. Camp was setup just inside of the horseshoe ridge, so we would be well protected from the wind. We were each setup with a bed roll on a camping stretcher to sleep on and a wash basin in our own "desert suite" on a patch of sand. A 3 course dinner was prepared by our chef and it was delicious! We had a quiche, salad, some warm vegetables to go with our oryx goulash. And we finished with an apple tart and a few drinks to wash it all down.

Our sleep was amazing on the first night. Laying in the middle of the desert staring up at the night's sky full of stars is amazing. The moon was partial so it provided some light for the evening but not enough to take away from the main spectacle of stars. I wish I had a camera good enough to capture what I could see because it's indescribable. Like a young boy, I could barely sleep straight through the night because I kept wanting to catch a glimpse of the position of the stars throughout the night. What a sight!

Day 2 was long! It started with a wake up call at 5:45am and hot cup of tea in bed. Breakfast was served at half past 6am along with a magnificent sunrise to really get the skin warmed up. After a hearty meal, we started our trek at 7:45am with a 4hr walk ahead of us. We would traverse more desert land and make our way out of the horseshoe mountain through a low rising pass. Again we'd pass many paw prints or insect tracks, and of course numerous oryx along the way. And by just after midday, we would stop for lunch. It was also an opportunity for us to rest and hide from the sun during the hottest part of the day. We rested for 2.5hrs in the shade of a tent prepared for us with our meal. Relaxing on the cots was much needed after trekking through the heat of the sun. It was probably 33deg C.

The afternoon walk was a brief 2 hours to get us to camp for the night. Earlier than the previous night, we all had a shower. But not just any shower; this would be a bucket shower with the beauty of nature in front of you. It's a strange feeling being nude outdoors, in the desert no less. This evening we ate kudu for dinner. It was hearty and filling after our day's journey. And again we spent our evening talking amongst each other under the stars. We really got to know everyone a good deal.

In particular, we really connected with this French Lebanese young man, Marc, and his mother, Marie-line. They enjoyed travel as much as we do, and we had excellent conversations about travel. We also had a young girl of 11 years of age with her grandparents on the trip. Celine, Bend, and Anja were great companions. Celine especially was so intelligent and asked great questions. She was almost the life of the adventure. I would really love to meet Celine 15-20 years from now to see what she's up to. She's told us that she wants to be a veterinarian. With her current knowledge base, I'm not surprised if she succeeds.

It's meeting people like this that really encourage us to continue traveling. The exposure to the thoughts, conversations, perspectives, and variety all keep us interested and constantly learning about the world and the people that walk this earth.

Our last morning had us up at dawn again, with a hot beverage in bed and a filling breakfast shortly after that. With a short hike lined up for the day, we were up and packed and ready to go. 2 hours would get us back to our point of origin and the scenery would still change along the way. It was a very comfortable walk back while we finished up some of the previous days conversations and began to talk about exchanging contact information. It seems like the best discussions always end this way. And so we're now all connected. Hopefully we can keep in touch.


After a 1 night rest in Windhoek to cut our day's driving time, we continued northward to the Etosha National Park, a 4.5hr drive away. The North of Namibia is slightly more lush than the rest of the country, but that doesn't say much as the country is extremely dry in general.

Etosha is very well known for being a place where you can self-game drive. Which is pretty damn cool. In your own car, at your own time, you can drive through this National Park in search of whatever animal you can find. There are dirt / gravel roads all throughout the park, so you have to stay on them. But as far as the eye can see is a landscape full of beauty. And the park is not just one terrain. It changes depending on where you are. It can be flat in the plains and rocky in other areas. There can be waterholes with or without water. Sometimes there are trees tall enough for giraffes to graze, and other times knee high shrubs is all you can find. It's great scenery even of your never see any animal. But that's hard to do.

For two full days we drove all throughout the park. Starting at 6:30am we would embark for the opening gates at sunrise, as our hotel was just outside the park. We peeked at every waterhole we could. Some holes were empty, others had some birds, and a only a few had herds of animals coming for a drink. On two separate occasions we visited different waterholes and out of no where animals would just appear out of the bush and timidly go for the water. Naturally cautious, giraffes, zebras, springbok, warthogs, and other little animals would check their surroundings for quite some time before they dip their heads for a sip. It only takes a quick glance away from your surroundings to be pounced on. Lucky for them, there were no predators in sight either time. And luckily for us, we chose waterholes that allowed us amazing photos of these wild animals.

Just before lunch on our first day driving around, we encountered what seemed to be a lone elephant walking down Rhino Drive. Though it was strange that the elephant was alone. We decided to follow him for a bit. He kept looking over his shoulder at us as if annoyed. Then at one point, we got a bit too close and it probably pissed him off. He turned around and started to charge at us! I could think of nothing else but to put the truck in reverse and started speeding away. I was terrified. The gravel road had so many holes and bumps and turns that any wrong move could have been fatal to us. He charged for what seemed to be 5 minutes but it was probably more like 2 minutes. But it was frightening. Looking back on it, if he had stomped on the car we probably would have had to jump out and abandon it. But thankfully that didn't happen. Once he felt like he warded us off enough, he turned around and continued on his way. By this time we were thinking, should we follow him and risk pissing him off? Or do we just make a u-turn and go a different way. Keeping with our adventurous nature and pressing our luck, we decided to follow him. The elephant continued to walk along the road until finally he decided to hang a left and cut into the bush. We found a road just after his turn and also turned on the same direction. All of a sudden we saw a whole herd of elephants walking through the trees. We followed them slowly from the road, and we were joyed to see a natural waterhole that was not on the map. There must have been 20+ elephants both adult and baby. They were all going for a bath and a drink in the water. It was a playground for these mammals. And it was quite the opposite feeling for us to watch them from this distance (less than 50 yards away) compared to our earlier encounter. Lesson learned: do not encroach on a large mammal's space.

After our second full day in the park we decided to change our plans and stay a night in the park. So we booked a lodge on the East side of the park. And we also arranged for a night time game drive. All the guides tells you that it's really hit or miss on the night safaris. Some people see many things and other see nothing. It's all a gamble. So we tested our luck! The three hour drive was chilly but our guide was keen to spot various animals. To aid us in spotting them, the driver used a red spotlight. It's less invasive and disturbing to the animals at night. We spotted:
  • giraffes
  • oryx
  • springbok 
  • kudu 
  • eland 
  • dik dik
  • black backed jackal
  • cape fox
  • black rhino
  • black spotted impala
  • lion
The lion was the only cat we spotted this evening. And it was on the driver's own gamble also. He drove to a place that normally he wouldn't go to because it's off the actual night game drive location. But it paid off and we saw 2 male lions calling to each other in the darkness. What a sight and sound to match!


Our last day in Namibia was a long drive back from Etosha to Windhoek. The 5.5hr drive seemed to pass so quickly with us recapping our sightings and experiences of Namibia.


Things we've eaten in Namibia worth noting:



We drove over 3,200km all over Namibia, from central Windhoek to Swakopmund and Walvis Bay, to Solitaire to Hammerstein, to Sossusvlei to the NamibRand Nature Reserve to Etosha. We saw marvelous landscapes. We surfed sand dunes. We hiked through the desert. We did game drives. We ate lots of game. We met new people. And we enjoyed every minute of every experience of every conversation we had along the way. Namibia is wonderful for so many reasons.

No comments: