Namibia (July 2014)

Having spent 2 weeks on a self-drive holiday in Namibia, and having taken many many photos, I now find it is almost impossible to use these photos to tell you about this amazing country in the southwest of Africa. The experience of travelling through the strangest landscapes and the vast distances between inhabited areas made for an experience which was as emotional as it was visual. 

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We started off in Windhoek which is the capital of Namibia and is home to 15% of the 2-plus million Namibians. Namibia has a strange history as a German colony which means that people in Windhoek first talk to you in German, even the street peddlers do this! The city’s monuments have a strong Soviet-style look to them, and many streets are named after revolutionary heroes. So I guess it should come as no surprise that Namibians are some of the very few nationals who have visa-free access to North Korea!

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We have hired cars in many countries, but here was the first time we had been shown the spare tyre and the tools necessary to change a wheel. I didn’t take us long to figure out why this was so important. For most of our trip we drove on gravel roads and most of the time you could keep up a decent speed. You soon learnt that if someone had bothered to put up a warning sign of any kind, you took notice. Usually it was a dramatic dip in the road which would have broken/tipped a car if taken too quickly. Winter is the peak tourist season here because the roads are dry and therefore much easier to navigate. Brown gravel roads tended to have more annoying dips and corregations than the white gravel roads; something to do with geology. Drivers tend to use the centre of the road to avoid boulders and soft sand, and it is easy to see a dust cloud indicating that something is coming your way so you have plenty of chance to get to the correct side of the road. But, if you get stuck behind a large lorry, your visibility becomes zero and you have to stop to let it get far enough ahead so you can see where you are going.

We left Windhoek to travel southwest towards the Namib Naukluft Park on the west coast of Namibia. We drove for hours without seeing another vehicle on the road and it was here that we first encountered the vast and strange landscape of this country. You could scan the horizon all around and still feel like you were the only people on Earth.

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Occassionally we stopped to take photos and take in our surroundings, and all the time we wondered why the Germans would have wanted to take over this inhospitable place?  And what did people do here to make a living? After a while we found part of the answer to the latter question as we spotted cattle ranches and some very healthy looking cattle. On this route though we saw little in the way of wildlife other than small birds. Mostly they were weaver birds who make huge nests (see photo on righthandside) if they are sociable weaver birds, or small individual nests (see photo on lefthandside) if they are not sociable! They even build decoy nests to confuse the snakes.

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For most of our trip, we would have activities booked at locations where we stayed more than one night. So, our routine became: up before the Sun, brief breakfast, escorted activity, possible lunch, return to base late afternoon, have a sun-downer, clean up, have a 3-course meal with generous helpings of wine, into bed to keep warm, read a few chapters of our holiday books, asleep by 9 pm. If we were driving to another destination, then up a little later and eat a cooked breakfast, then drive all day to the next destination. Usually there simply was nowhere to stop for lunch, but we had no problem surviving on two main meals a day. The food was exceptionally good, given the circumstances. Game meat featured heavily and, except for Eland, was much nicer than beef steak. These antelope shown below are oryx, the national animal of Namibia, and were by far the most delicious of all the game meat we tasted.

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Our first activity was a trip to Sossusvlei. We knew this would be one of the highlights of the trip and we were not disappointed. Sossusvlei is in a huge strip of red sand dunes which covers the southern part of the western coast of Namibia.

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The central sand dune is known as Dune 45 and you can see people dotted on the ridge at the top. I found climbing in sand too tough, with 2 steps backwards for every 3 steps forwards. So I wandered around the base while the more intrepid Lawrence headed for the top. The environment here is so photogenic and the shape-shifting sand was mesmerising to watch! I reckon we are still finding sand in our shoes from this part of the trip.

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The last part of the trip required a 4WD vehicle as you cannot maintain any kind of road in so much sand. We walked towards another large sand dune known as Big Daddy but all the group agreed we’d do something a little gentler now that the sun was up and the temperature was soaring. So, we walked to Deadvlei (Dead pan) and marvelled at the strange tree stumps. Occassionally there is water in this pan, but not today.

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The following day we drove north to the coastal town of Swakopmund, over the Gaub and Kuiseb Passes (righthand photo) where the geology of the region changed completley. We drove into Swakopmund on the C28 which took us through a moonscape of extraordinary beauty. It was like driving through a vast gravel pit! Then we noticed signs of industry with huge pipelines being built alongside the road to link up with the mines. Then, a sign saying “Dust zone ends in 2 km. Wonderful news; a gravel road ahead!

Swakopmund is known as a seaside town (the adventure capital of Namibia), so we were on the look out for trees and greenery. But now the landscape changed to a white-out as we entered the town through its industrial site. Nothing about this said ‘seaside’!  Swakopmund is the second largest ‘German’ community in Namibia with a very good beerhouse in town. And, although Swakopmund does have a beach, we didnt see many people using it. A cold wind was coming in from the West and temperatures were dropping. 

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After a day exploring the local museum and places of interest, we said goodbye to the town-life of Swakopmund and drove north along the coast road to Cape Cross. We were now in the Dorob National Park which is the southern end of the Skeleton Coast. The Portuguese landed here in the 15th century, erected a cross, and left not to return for another 4 centuries. We landed here to see the seal colony. I say “see” but the first things we detected were the “smell” and the “noise”. The seal colony was full of noisy youngsters calling to their mums for food.

The drive inland to Camp Kipwe in Damaraland took us through salt plains and flatness for miles and miles. At one point the only way we knew where the road was was because of a telegraph line some way away off to one side. We also experienced the heat haze and delusion of water on the road far ahead. Occassionally we spotted some ostriches in the fields, but this was a truly remote and empty landscape. Despairing that we would ever find our destination, we eventually arrived at Camp Kipwe not long before sunset; you really do not want to be driving once the sun has gone down!

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Our activity the next morning was an elephant hunt. This region is known for its desert-adapted elephants which are also know as pests by the local farmers as it is impossible to keep them out of walled vegetable plots, even when surrounded by tall electric fencing. After a few hours of driving we came across a herd of 14 elephants of all ages. Their diet seemed to comprise mostly of dry twigs, so it was easy to see why they went for the sweet potatoes of the farmers.

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Our afternoon activity was a trip to Twyfelfontain to see some ancient rock carvings (about 500 years old). You should be able to see giraffe, antelope and a lion in this photo, while other carvings included seals and rhinos. These were the bushmen’s equivalent of my digital photos and this website! They would travel and bring back images which they carved into the sandstone rocks. Over time, these rocks moved or fell but their significance remained unclear for centuries. Apparently, the lion in this photo is a bushman witch doctor because it has 5 toes and an extra ‘hand’ on its tail.

Here at Camp Kipwe I set up my camera on the hut porch to attempt to produce a star trail photo. The twigs at the top of the photo are the porch cover and the boulders at the bottom are part of the camp. These images were collected over a couple of hours and you can see the stars moving around what I assume is the Southern Cross.

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Next we drove further north, visited the Petrified Forest site, then finally found some tarmacked roads at last. We entered the Etosha National Park at the Western end and stayed in Okaukuejo Rest Camp in a chalet overlooking a waterhole. Just about everything gathered at this waterhole at some time; elephants and white rhino appeared later when the area was floodlit. The bedroom in our chalet was on the second floor, so we just watched the animals all night; beats watching TV!

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Despite the flood lighting, I decided to set up the camera for star trails again. Bear in mind that you do not know the results of these attempts until back at home with the computer. So, I was very pleased with the outcome of just over 400 shots. 

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The next day we drove through the park to the Eastern Gate to stay at Mushara Bush Camp. You are not allowed to get out of your car but you can stop almost anywhere to admire and take photos of whatever wildlife turns up. If you find a waterhole though, you will invariably find animals. The photo below shows some rather skittish ostriches running around.

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We had a full day to explore the park again, so decided our goal was to find a rhino. This goal took us down a rather less-used track with a few scary moments as we negotiated some very pitted ‘roads’. Didn’t see any rhinos, but plenty of other wildlife, mostly in small family groups.

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At the Etosha Lookout Point, we experienced more of the isolation of this place. This arid plain stretched for miles, and you can see the mirage on the horizon. After leaving here, we were waved down by a driver. His car had a puncture but he had no jack. Now remember, you are not supposed to get out of your vehicle. Thankfully, this part of the park appeared pretty deserted of large animals, so Lawrence was able to help with the jack from our car. Now we understood why the car rental chap had been so insistent on showing us these items in the car.

Our final destination of interest was the Okonjima Ranch, home of AfriCat. This reservation aims to rehabilitate cheetahs and leopards, and to educate local farmers about these animals. They have several animals with collars so they can be tracked by radiotransmitters. So, in the afternoon we went tracking a couple of cheetahs. Once their radio signal was found, we were able to get out of our vehicle and find them on foot. It was late afternoon and they were resting under the trees.

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The following morning we went leopard tracking. This was a lot more difficult as leopards are much shyer than cheetahs and like to walk among thicker bush. We were so lucky to get a good view of this leopard when she was out looking for her breakfast.

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I hope you will have gained some feeling of the pleasure of travelling through Namibia and the experience of its variety of Nature. So, cheers to all those people who helped us on this journey and to all the staff who looked after us along the way.

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