Gor­geous Namibia

Leisure Wheels (South Africa) - - CONTENTS - Text: An­drea Di­jk­stra Photographs: Jeroen van Loon

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.

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