Land of Extremes
Game parks packed with wild animals, sand dunes reaching up to the sky and one of the largest colonies of Cape fur seals in the world. Gorgeous Namibia is definitely a land of opposites.
With each step we take on our trudge upward, our feet sink a little deeper into the loose, cool sand. I stop and look out over the enormous sand dunes. Fortunately, the sun hasn’t made its appearance over the horizon just yet. It’s 5.30am and we are climbing Dune 45, the most famous dune in Sossusvlei.
Scrambling up this 170-metre high dune is seriously exhausting, especially after eating only a handful of peanuts for breakfast. Because we camped at the Sesriem Rest Camp – the only campsite within the park’s fences – we were allowed to enter the reserve one hour earlier than other tourists.
We are the first today to hike the razorsharp, virgin dune ridge, still untouched by tourist feet. Finally at the top, we sit down and watch the sunrise colour the gigantic dunes from black to grey to orange to red. After the exhausting climb, the magical view of the oldest desert in the world, the so-called Namib Desert, is more than rewarding.
We soon come back to reality when we hear other tourists shouting. Quickly we slide down the dune on our bums; an adventure by itself! To be able to view the other top attraction – the Deadvlei – in the same beautiful light, we hurry to our Land Rover and continue our journey through the valley.
CHANGING A TYRE IN EXTREMELY LOOSE SAND
Still in a hurry, we get to the last few miles – which are reserved for 4×4 vehicles only – and forget to drop the air pressure in our tyres for more traction. Getting slower every minute, we plough through the sand which becomes more and more loose, until we get completely stuck.
We step out of the Landy, surprised about what just happened, while passing tourist guides in Toyota Land Cruisers make fun of us. Embarrassed, we quickly start to deflate the tyres. Suddenly the valve of our left rear wheel shoots out of the tyre, straight into the loose sand as the wheel starts to flatten.
We quickly screw on our tyre pressure device to prevent the tyre from deflating completely. Sadly we can’t find the original valve and we don’t have a spare.
The only thing left to do is to change the entire wheel, standing in this gigantic sand pit full of extremely loose sand. When our hi-lift jack keeps on sinking away in the sand, we really break out in a cold sweat. What on earth can we do to fix this problem? We slide our sand ladders under the jack and manage to jack up our car and change the wheel.
Totally exhausted and covered in sand from head to toe, we get back into the car an hour later. The phrase ‘more haste, less speed’ makes complete sense to us now.
The sun is high in the sky but thankfully that doesn’t make the Deadvlei any less beautiful. We marvel at the dark dead camelthorn trees in all kinds of weird poses. These ‘statues’ are estimated to be approximately 900 years old.
At that time, the trees no longer received water due to a sudden climate change and instead of rotting, they turned to stone. The whole scenery with the snow-white clay pan, the red sand dunes and the bright blue sky, makes us feel like we are on a foreign planet, although the thousands of tourists who come here each day take away part of the magic. We have hardly ever seen such mass tourism in Africa.
ANIMALS FIGHTING FOR A SIP OF WATER
The Etosha National Park in the north-east of Namibia is another must-visit spot. It spans an area of 22 270km2, making it one of the largest game parks of Southern Africa.
Its name comes from the large Etosha saltpan, covering a big part of the park. The reserve has dozens of waterholes where we turn off the engine, settle down, and watch the intriguing comings and goings of elephant, giraffe, zebra, kudu, gemsbok, springbok and many other animals.
At one particular waterhole, we can’t believe our eyes when we spot a lion sneaking through the grass. It’s heading in the direction of the natural pool and starts to slurp the water. And the party isn’t over when the sun sets: open 24-hours-a-day, the floodlit waterholes in all the park’s campsites offer excellent night-time viewing.
At Halali Camp for example, we drink a beer at the viewing point and watch a herd of more than 10 elephant fighting to get to the water first. A few hours later, five rhino come to the waterhole producing weird siren-like sounds to impress each other. We feel as though we are part of a National Geographic documentary.
We leave the park the next day and drive to Kamanjab, a quiet little place where not much happens. On the edge of the town, however, you find Oppikoppi, a lodge and campsite run by the BelgianDutch couple Vital and Marian and their daughter Melissa.
This campsite offers a free stay for overlanders, which suits us just fine. Quickly we open our rooftop tent at one of the spacious camping spots and sit down at the pool, where we observe the wonderful tropical birds that settle down in the trees.
SKINS COVERED WITH BUTTER, FAT AND RED OCHRE.
The next morning, we visit one of the villages of the iconic Himba tribe where a local guide explains their traditions to us. The women, for example, colour their skin and hair with otjize, a paste of butter, fat and red ochre, and wear elaborate jewellery and headpieces made of metal and animal skin.
At the age of 12, both boys and girls have the front bottom teeth knocked out and the two top front teeth filed into an upsidedown ‘V’, which is their tribal identification. However, occidental influences are noticeable in some areas.
The black tassels which the women tie to the ends of their hair strands were made of cow’s tails in the early days or even the hair of their husbands. “Nowadays we make them from Chinese hair extensions that we buy in the supermarket,” one of the ladies tells.
Although the endless gravel roads in Namibia can be a bit empty and boring, the C39 gravel route from Kamanjab to the coast is highly recommended. Galloping giraffe and mountain zebra pass us as we zigzag through the impressive Grootberg Pass.
We exchange the red volcanolike table mountains for a surrealistic moon landscape with white and grey sand dunes. The temperature in the beautiful Torra Conservancy suddenly drops from 30⁰C to a chilly 18.
We’ve arrived at the renowned Skeleton Coast, named after the many washed-up whalebones. A fresh Atlantic sea breeze blows through our hair.
The original inhabitants called it ‘the land that God made in anger’, while the Portuguese sailors traversing the Atlantic Ocean christened the region The Sands of Hell. If they made it to shore at all after a shipwreck, death almost certainly awaited in the desert beyond. The stark beauty of this stretch of coastline inspires both awe and fear, due to its strong unpredictable currents and dense fog.
The remains of doomed vessels can be seen along the desolate coastline. It is one of the most arid places in the world with less than 1.5cm of rain per year, yet this mirageforming region often makes us feel like we are driving along huge lakes.
THOUSANDS OF BARKING SEALS
We drive past dozens of pickups with white South African or Namibian drivers, on their way to one of the many beautiful fishing spots
As there are only a few tarmac roads in this gigantic country, we often drive the endless gravel roads for many hours without encountering anyone or anything
with long fishing rods attached to their hoods. The Skeleton Coast is nutrient rich due to the Benguela Current that comes up from Antarctica, resulting in extremely rich sealife.
Many Cape fur seals live here and Cape Cross even hosts one of the largest seal colonies in the world, with as many as 250 000 animals. We arrive in the mating season when the beach becomes a hive of activity. Thousands of pups are crying and females are barking, while large adult males fight over territory. The animals produce quite a distinct smell, but if you manage to cope with it, visiting the seal colony is a memorable experience.
KAFFEE MIT KUCHEN AT ONE OF THE BAKERIES
It’s an odd experience to enter the touristic seaside resort of Swakopmund, right after we’ve left the desolate coastline. We laugh at enormous pelicans feeding on the fish heads thrown by a fisherman who is cleaning walleye on a concrete countertop in the street.
We enjoy Kaffee mit Kuchen on the terrace of one of the bakeries, we walk past typical Fachwerkhäuse, the famous German half-timbered houses and, for just a moment, we imagine being in Germany, the coloniser of German South West Africa until 1919.
Besides the palm trees, the town is strikingly European with many souvenir shops, neatly constructed lawns, roads and sidewalks and a red, old-fashioned lighthouse. Adventurers should visit the south of Swakopmund where camel rides and paragliding can be activities of interest. The sheer thrill of riding a quad bike through Namibia’s boundless expanse of shifting sand dunes is also quite the experience.
Leaving the tourist activities behind us, we re-enter the emptiness while heading further
south. As there are only a few tarmac roads in this gigantic country, we often drive the endless gravel roads for many hours without encountering anyone or anything.
Our teeth nearly rattle out of our heads when our Land Rover bounces over parts of the road, which are like sandy washboards. Fortunately, most of the sand roads are of reasonable quality. When our speedometer shows that we’re driving 75 miles per hour, we’re amazed that this is even possible on a gravel road.
GERMAN HOUSES SWALLOWED BY THE SAND
Seven hundred kilometres to the south, we dive into a piece of German history once again, when we visit Kolmanskop.
This was an extremely prosperous diamond mine community at the beginning of the 20th century but today it is a ghost town fighting a constant battle with the sand dunes of the Namib Desert. Guide Jannie shows us the former bowling alley, ballroom and the many colonial buildings. She tells us that the town used to have a hospital, a power station, a school, a swimming pool, a casino and an ice factory.
It was even the first town in the South African region to own an X-ray machine, thanks to the enormous diamond revenues. However, when the diamond field slowly got depleted and the Germans abandoned the place in 1954, the impressive houses gradually sank into the desert, losing what was once magnificent.
It’s an absolutely unique experience to walk through the sand-filled but extremely photogenic houses as we try to imagine what daily life of these German miners must have been like.
It’s hard to believe we are still in the same country where we encountered all those animals in Ethosha National Park, met the iconic Himbas and climbed the red sand dunes of the Sossusvlei.
In that respect, Namibia truly is a land of extremes.
This image: The Deadvlei scenery with its dead thorn trees at the snow-white clay pan makes us feel like we're on a foreign planet Below: Changing a tyre in a gigantic sand pit full of extremely loose sand is pretty challenging. Opposite page, top to bottom: In Etosha National Park, giraffe, elephant, zebra and even lion fight for a sip of refreshing water at the waterholes. Bottom right: The women of the iconic Himba tribe colour their skin and hair with otjize, a paste of butter, fat and red ochre, and wear elaborate jewellery and headpieces made of metal and animal skin.
Above, top to bottom: The endless gravel roads can be a bit boring. We passed a stately Gemsbok while we zigzagged through the impressive Grootberg Pass. A quick lunch in the beautiful Torra Conservancy where the temperature drops from over 30⁰C to a chilly 18⁰C. Right: Large adult male seals fight over territory at Cape Cross Seal Reserve, home to one of the largest colonies of Cape fur seals in the world.
Above: Camping at the scenic Trans Kalahari Inn just outside Windhoek Right: Riding quad bikes in the desert, south of Swakopmund. Opposite page, top to bottom: It’s a unique experience to walk through the sand-filled but extremely photogenic houses of Kolmanskop ghost town, once a prosperous diamondmining community. Watching the sunrise change the colors of the gigantic sand dunes of the Namib Desert from the top of the 85m-high Dune 45.