Between the Sunsets - in Namibia
After staying home for four months following my trip to Egypt in November 2020, I was searching for my next solo travel experience and decided on Namibia. Having seen many beautiful landscape pictures taken in the Namib Desert, Namibia has been on my list for many years as a destination I was very interested in exploring. As with many other African countries it is open to US travelers, has a very low number of COVID cases and most importantly for me, offers the opportunity to be immersed in nature and enjoying the outdoors for the majority of time I was in-country.
On Monday 26th April, I left Wilmington, North Carolina to fly to Windhoek, Namibia via Frankfurt. The journey was very easy, and I finally arrived in Windhoek at ~ 6:00 am on Wednesday morning, local time.
Whenever I arrive on the African continent, I always have this amazing feeling that I am where I belong. It is a strange feeling in many ways, as it is so similar to walking in the family home, where you immediately know you are welcome, and family and friends are pleased to see you come for a visit.
I was met just outside of immigration by my driver for the next five days. His name was Kastro, from Namibia Tracks & Trails. It was his first time working since COVID had closed the country down back in March 2020, and he was so pleased to be back ‘on the road’ with clients again. I could tell that he was thrilled to be working and full of enthusiasm to share his country with visitors once more. This is one of the many blessings visitors to countries that have suffered desperately from the devastation that COVID caused to the travel and tourism industry will receive as countries begin to re-open. The “welcoming” feeling I always have when arriving in Africa, is multiplied at this time, as they are truly waiting to welcome guests back with open arms and thankful hearts!
Somewhat poignantly, as I stepped off the plane to a beautiful sunrise, I was able to capture a photo of what I found out later was the final two Air Namibia jets about to leave Namibia for the final time before the logos are changed. Very sadly the airline was a victim of COVID and was formally liquidated in March 2021 and a timely reminder of the economical impact the pandemic had throughout the World.
I was excited to have three weeks in-country to explore as much as I could, and quickly learned that it would not be enough! Having some ideas of the properties I wanted to visit and a few suggestions from good friends in the industry, my partner in Namibia had worked out a perfect route for me to be able to visit ten properties and experience multiple very different landscapes within Namibia. Kastro, would be with me until we arrived in Swakopmund and then I would be on my own for the remainder of the trip. We left the airport heading Southwest towards our first stop, Little Kulula, approximately a five-hour drive. Very quickly after leaving Windhoek behind us, the roads changed from tarmac to dirt and the surrounding landscape had my complete attention, which it would for the next three weeks. As we left the primary route from Windhoek to Walvis Bay and Swakopmund, the already very small amount of traffic became almost non-existent. We passed locals with the donkeys and carts more frequently than we did cars. closer to Little Kulula the stunning beauty of the Namib-Naukluft National Park took my breath away. The many different shades of yellows, reds, browns, greens and blues all perfectly blending together reminded me of a watercolor artists palette with the different shades of color. I knew from day one this was going to be one of those trips that would provide so many lasting memories. What I did not realize quite so quickly was just how rejuvenating it would be for my soul after the past year.
Having arrived and settled in at Little Kulula, later in the afternoon we went out to find the perfect spot to enjoy my first sundowners in Namibia. Jason took me up high into the hills to enjoy this magnificent sunset, at which time I wondered if I had started with the best of the trip and it would be a disappointment from here on, but I should not have worried at all. The diversity of Namibia provided me with day after day of brilliant landscapes and scenery to enjoy during the days and for the nightly sundowners, which is such a wonderful way to end every day anywhere in Africa!
The following morning, we left Little Kulula before sunrise to drive out to DeadVlei and Sossusvlei, two places high on my list to visit. Many of you will recognize the incredible natural phenomenon at DeadVlei. On the journey to DeadVlei we stopped to allow me to climb Dune 45, a star dune that is ~ 170 meters. The climb was most definitely challenging as the sand was both soft and powdery but also heavy, and with every two steps forward you slide back one!! It is also a narrow path, ranging between one and two feet Wide. Starting out it is a steep climb, however it does that flatten out a little and meanders along the dune crest before rising steeply again. With vertiginous drops on either side of the narrow path, it could be challenging for anyone uncomfortable with heights, however it is completely safe, and the climb was so worthwhile to be able to stand at the top and enjoy the 360 degree views was just breathtaking!
Arriving at DeadVlei, the first sight is Big Daddy, one of the highest sand dunes in the world (~ 350 meters) which rests on a sandstone terrace, but what you cannot see is DeadVlei. It is only by walking up and across the red sand dunes that DeadVlei becomes visible. The clay pan was formed when the Tsauchab river flooded, creating temporary shallow pools were the abundance of water allowed camel thorn trees to grow. When the climate changed, drought hit the area and the sand dunes encroached on the pan, which blocked the river the from the area. The camel thorn trees died, however there are a number of tree skeletons remaining which are believed to have died between 600 and 700 years ago. I was so fortunate to see DeadVlei with no other people around and was able to get a very rare shot of the area with no one in the pan.
Being able to experience DeadVlei without anyone else there was just incredible. I was able to appreciate the opportunity and take some time to consider how nature can create such a different landscape with changing weather patterns. From there we went to Sossusvlei, which is a larger salt and clay pan, also surrounded by the high red dunes. Walking across the parched salt and clay bed reminded me of the tradition of smashing plates at a Greek celebration as the ground literally “crunched” beneath my feet!!
That evening the team at Little Kulula set up a Gin Bar for the guests, sadly just three of us were there that night, but we had so much fun. Selma and her team had multiple different gins available, with different mixers, fruits, etc., and Heinz , traveling with his wife from Switzerland took on the role of mixologist, fully immersing himself into character, providing for a very fun filled sundowners at the Lodge.
Next up was Kwessi Dunes, just a little more than an hour ‘down the road’, but providing a very different experience and landscape. Kwessi is a new property that was only open for about one month before COVID shut everything down in 2020. Tucked away at the foot of the red sand dunes, it is a beautiful destination that sits within the Namib Sand Sea, which is a designated World Heritage site due to the unique coastal fog desert encompassing a diverse array of large, shifting dunes. I encourage you to use this link to learn more about this amazing desert. And, if you or your child is interested in geology, petrology, geography, biology, zoology or astronomy, a visit to Namibia will be both fascinating, educational and inspirational for all! I believe that travel is the greatest education of all, as these authentic experiences cannot be learned in a classroom, and the power of being in a destination such as Namibia, which opens your imagination through sensory experiences, is priceless.
A few of the highlights at Kwessi Dunes, included the Bushman’s Walk, which is led by two guides on foot early in the day. Walking out into the dunes and seeing the many insects and small creatures was fascinating to me, but even better was being with two knowledgeable guides, one of whom would share information about how the locals used to survive in the desert in the local KhoeKhoegowab language, while the second provided an interpretation. Watching them find a dancing white lady spider who make their nest about 25 cms deep into the sand was fascinating. Another was going to see the Quiver trees, which were flowering during the time of my visit. They are quite beautiful and their ability to grow in such a harsh landscape with so little nutrition or moisture in the soil is remarkable. We were also lucky enough to see an unusually large herd of Gemsbok, also known as Oryx, as the national animal of Namibia I would see Oryx on most days of this trip, but this was a herd of > 500 so truly was brilliant to see so many together!
Perhaps the most enjoyable experience at Kwessi Dunes was my night out under the stars. All the chalets, have both an inside and outside sleeping option, and as I had not done this at Little Kulula I wanted to try. The night sky in this area of Namibia is a designated Dark Sky Reserve, which according to the International Dark Sky Association (IDA) is a “public or private land possessing and exception or distinguished quality of starry nights and nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural, heritage and/or public enjoyment”. Did you know that there are currently only 13 Dark Sky Reserves in the world one each in Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, and Namibia, two each in Germany, France and the USA and three in the U.K. I was surprised to find that there are not more in Africa, but truly the night sky in the region was quite spectacular! Sadly, I do not have the right camera equipment to capture a starry night and the Milky Way, so those images are stored in my head.
The next day, leaving those brilliant landscapes, we headed Northwest, crossing the Tropic of Capricorn and the Gaub Pass towards Swakopmund. En route to Swakopmund we would take a detour to see the Welwitschia Mirabilis plants which occur exclusively in the central part of the Namib desert between 40 and 120 km off the coast. Most specimens of Welwitschia are about 1000 years old and some older. The plant only grows two leaves, which over time are shredded by the wind making them look as though they have more. They truly are strange plants, but I was so pleased I made the detour to have an opportunity to see them.
Close by to the Welwitschia is an area known as the Moon Landscape. The area was previously a high mountain range that has been eroded over many years, down to its foundations. With the erosion over the past 2 million years and through the actions of the Swakop river, it is now a stark, bare and inhospitable looking landscape also known as the Badlands. The area has been used for location shoots by the film industry. It was certainly a very eerie looking area, with only tones of greys and blacks, and to walk on it, there was almost a spongy feel to the ground. Of course I doubt I will ever know for sure, but it is what I imagine it might be like to walk on the moon! So very different to the previous days.
From here we turned northwards up the coast to Swakopmund. This was a great little coastal town with a very healthy population of guinea fowl!! Walking around the town, I know that I saw more road signs warning about guinea fowl crossing the road than I did for pedestrians. On the first day I found this quite funny as I didn’t see any guinea fowl, however that quickly changed on day two in Swakopmund when I quickly understood the reason for the warning signs!
In Swakopmund I went to an amazing restaurant called The Tug, which was a converted tug boat reaching into the ocean with seating extending out onto a pier. It reminded me very much of some of the oceanside restaurants here in Wilmington, NC, although I have to say that I am not sure that any of them here in Wilmington serve quite such delicious food. With fresh seafood in abundance, after all I was at the coast, The Tug was really on a par with many other incredible restaurants I have been fortunate enough to enjoy. Later in the trip I recommended it to two other groups of Americans traveling who were heading to Swakopmund and certainly will be looking to include in any of my clients’ itineraries for Namibia that include Swakopmund.
On arrival into Swakopmund for my stay at The Strand Hotel I had said my goodbyes to Kastro as I would be on my own for the remainder of my trip. Thankfully before leaving Kastro had shared several important pieces of advice for driving alone across Namibia –
Always fill up with fuel when you see a filling station – you never know when they may run out!
Adjust tire pressures based on road type, soft sand, hard rocks, dry riverbeds, etc., all had a different requirement!
Watch out for the animals!
With this in mind, I firmly filled my tank to the brim before heading North on the coast road, my first stop was an overnight at Cape Cross Lodge. This was primarily to break the drive up between Swakopmund and Shipwreck Lodge, but it also provided me with time to stop and visit the Cape Cross Seal reserve. Driving northwards on the coastal road from Swakopmund towards Cape Cross there is a raw beauty of the combination of the desert, the salt flats and the rugged coastal shoreline as you hug the blackened surface of the salt roads tinted by heated rubber tires.
The Cape Fur Seal can only be found on the coast of Southern Africa and the Seal Reserve is the largest breeding colony in the world, with more than 200,000 cape fur seals. I can’t tell you how pleased I was to have my mask with me when I climbed out of the car at the Seal colony – phew that place stunk!!! There was literally thousands of seals at the point, many of which appeared to be only too willing to pose for the camera. My personal favorite shots are below, including the photo bomber, check him/her out to the left behind the one posing on the rock!!
Leaving Cape Cross before sunrise, the drive along the dark salt roads towards Terence Bay, my last possible fuel stop for several days, I was guided to stay on the road by some reflective lights, which were necessary as the salt roads were becoming less well-maintained than others. There is very little activity on the coastal road; the day before I had barely passed another car and any traffic was likely to be a fisherman heading for a place to fish! It seemed that approximately every 10 kms there would be a sign and “road” to the left which literally would take you right up to where the sand dunes meet the ocean. One of my favorites was the sign to St. Nowhere, particularly since it really did appear to be in the middle of nowhere!
Just after sunrise I was driving along and saw this creature on the right-hand side of the road. It took me a couple of seconds to realize that it was a brown hyena, something I had never seen before. I was quite surprised at how big it looked but learned later that they often make their fur stand upright to portray themselves as more threatening. Unfortunately, I only managed a quick, and not very good picture as I really had been unprepared to stop, and the hyena was on the move away from the road!
Next stop was for gas at Terrace Bay, which was a little adventure. As I drove into Terrace Bay there were some quite clear signs showing the ‘store’ and ‘filling station’ were to the right, the ‘restaurant’ and ‘campsites’ were to the left and the ‘fish-cleaning station’ was straight-ahead. I turned to the right and started to look for the filling station but could not locate it. I did find the store though and so stopped to ask about the filling station. The very helpful lady told me it was just outside, so I went back outside and looked again and saw nothing but a couple of different small huts, none of which looked to be a filling station. So, I headed back inside and asked her if she could possibly show me where it was, with that, she walked outside and indeed pointed to the closest little hut and said someone would be right there to fill up the car. Sure enough, locked up inside the little hut was a gas pump!! Having filled the tank to the very top, I then went to leave for my next stop, Mowe Bay, a rendezvous point with the escort to show me the way to Shipwreck Lodge. But as I pulled out of the filling station I realized that there was no sign to Mowe Bay, or to anywhere outside of the various facilities of Terrace Bay. The road ahead had a fork to the right and to the left, and neither one looked more likely to be the right road to take.
With that, I went back to the lady at the store and asked her which direction was the way to Mowe Bay. Of course, she told me to go “straight”. I tried to explain that there was a road that goes to the right and one to the left, but she kept just telling me to go “straight”, so I finally had to ask her to come outside for a second time and show me the correct road, which was the one to the left!
As I left Terrace Bay, the “road” rapidly deteriorated to sand and dirt and I was pleased that I had also deflated my tires, as guided by Kastro, while filling up with gas. From here it was about two more hours driving to Mowe Bay, where I was scheduled to meet my escort at 11:00 am. I was quite pleased with myself as I drove into Mowe Bay at 10:55 am right on time 😊! I was met by Heidi who let me know that it was about another one and a half hours drive into Shipwreck Lodge, although that did include a few brief stops to check out a couple of the shipwrecks on the coast as we went. At this point, we were truly just driving along tracks in the sand dunes with, I noticed, poles sticking up out of the dunes every mile or two to indicate the route – now I understood why I needed the escort to find Shipwreck Lodge!!
Arriving at Shipwreck, I was immediately in awe of the location. It is the only property in that area of the coast and unlike the red dunes I experienced during the first few days of my trip, I was now surrounded by light golden and white sand that reached out to a rough and wild ocean.