Namibia: Windhoek to Ai-Ais

2 – 16 June 2013

It felt odd to be heading towards a major city after so long in the bush, so we eased the potential culture shock by staying at a camp in a private game park on the outskirts. When we checked in we’d seen a notice about a habituated, but grumpy, warthog that lives on the grounds. Soon after we’d got the tent set up and started to settle in we spotted him trotting around nearby. We had some old apples with us, so threw one over to him, but away from where we were camped to try and keep him at a distance. However he soon decided that he wanted to see if we had anything else on offer, so came running over to us. Well, grumpy doesn’t really begin to describe him as, rather than just checking us out, he started charging and trying to head butt us. Marcello tried to chase him away with a stick, but he just put his head against it and pushed back. He then started chasing Karen around Charlie … Karen desperately trying not to spill the G&T she had in her hand at the time as she tried to escape him! Eventually she found respite by squeezing on top of the fridge in the back. (Marcello’s most annoyed he didn’t manage to capture this on film!)

We thought we were safe when he finally got the hint and started wandering off, but when he saw Marcello walking towards the bathroom he saw his opportunity. He swiftly turned on his heal and cut Marcello off, trotting into the bathroom himself. After he eventually came out again, Marcello found that his ultimate revenge had been to pee all over the bathroom floor. Just to add insult to injury, he also did the same in the women’s. At this very park previously Joel had been challenged by an ostrich (sorry Joel, a lion), so clearly your life is in your own hands here!

After a very cold night (we were going to have to accept we were heading into winter), we went into the city to gather some supplies. From here we decided to get a headstart on our long drive down to Sesreim so we drove an hour south of Windhoek and spent the next couple of nights at the Lake Oanob resort. Here we had a fantastic pitch with a large deck overlooking the lake and had a chilled day off catching up on some much-needed laundry and other odd jobs. We can imagine it being extremely popular there in the summer but unfortunately it wasn’t quite warm enough to go for a dip in the lake.

We set off early the next day and managed to get to Sesreim by lunchtime. Sesreim is just inside the Namib-Naukluft National Park and where you stay to go and see the huge sand dunes at Sossusvlei: the ones that you will have seen photographs of and what a lot of people visualise when picturing Namibia.

The following morning we got up before sunrise to head into the park. On the advice of Nicky, Nick and Simon (who we’d met in Malawi) we kept driving past Dune 45 (the most climbed and probably photographed of the dunes) and went straight out to Dead Vlei. The majority of the drive is on a tar road, but this turns to thick sand for the last 5km. As we made our way through we came across a couple whose car was well and truly stuck. After some unsuccessful digging and pushing, Charlie and Marcello came to the rescue for the second time on the trip and pulled them out.

Once we’d got to the car park, and figured out where exactly the Dead Vlei was, we were extremely glad we’d taken the advice to head straight there. It’s an absolute visual delight. Dead Vlei is a pan of white fine mud where a river used to flow, but has now changed course. Within the pan are a number of “skeletons” of dead acacia trees. The colour contrasts of the white clay, dark wood, blue sky and red sand are stunning. We spent a long time wandering around, taking photos and admiring the varying contours of the trees.

We could have strolled around for hours, but decided to put our legs to the test and tackle the sand dune next to it. Boy was it tough work, but we eventually made it to the top. The wind was pumping and blowing the grains of sand over the top of the dune … and into our faces. It was remarkable to look around and see these huge mountains of sand all around us and the sharp edges that are formed by the wind. However Karen was slightly less impressed when the wind caught her camera, which then rolled all the way down the side of the dune. In hindsight she should have taken its lead and rolled down after it like she used to roll down hills as a kid …

After we’d returned to the camp and had a spot of lunch we noticed a familiar couple wandering past our pitch: it was none other than Colin and Diana! We’d briefly bumped into them in the supermarket in Opuwo a couple of weeks beforehand, but thought we’d gone in fairly separate directions. However, we did also have a sneaking suspicion that we were bound to bump into each other again along the way. It was great to catch up with them again and swap our various tales, sightings and recommendations and we continued this over dinner and drinks that evening. The couple on our neighbouring pitch also joined us and Dianna (made it easy to remember!), who is from Guatemala, taught us how to make tortillas.

We left the dunes behind the following morning and drove on to Klein-Aus Vista. It’s close to here that the world’s only known wild, desert-dwelling horses can be found. We drove out there in the late afternoon and watched as different teams of horses came down to the man-made watering hole to drink. In all honestly we couldn’t really tell much difference between these and domestic horses – there probably isn’t really one – perhaps apart from the fact that they were quite skinny. It was interesting to watch their behaviour though; one team moving on when another arrived and the majority having a good roll about in the sand once they’d finished drinking.

After another pretty chilly night under the stars, we drove back out to the coast and to Luderitz. We’d heard that in order to visit Kolmanskop, the ghost town nearby, we had to get our permit from one of the agents there. (This is another permit that we were then told by the guard on the gate that we could have in fact bought from him.) In any case, we treated ourselves to a room for the night as we had been warned that the wind was due to pump hard, so camping wouldn’t be much fun. That night we made the most of the location and tucked into a sizable seafood platter, complete with oysters, crayfish and huge prawns.

We headed out to Kolmanskop the next morning. This ghost town was once the main settlement for the local diamond industry. It opened in 1908 but was abandoned around 50 years ago. The majority of the buildings have been left exactly as they were when they were abandoned and are now slowly being consumed by the sand dunes. We were actually surprised by how fascinating it was wandering around. It really is a photographer’s dream location. Who would have thought you could keep yourself amused for so long just exploring deserted buildings?! You could tell that there was a lot of money generated there at the time as this small community had their own hospital, with the region’s first x-ray machine, and a large theatre amongst other things. We did keep an eye out for any stray diamonds that might just happen to be laying around, but with lots of warning signs threatening serious consequences for anyone found stealing from the area it’s probably a good job we didn’t spot anything.

Once we’d finished filling our SD cards with photos, we drove back towards Aus. We stopped in at the wild horses’ watering hole again on the way and found a large group of ostriches standing around nearby. It was funny watching them as they weren’t actually drinking, they were just kind of hanging out. When they finally did decide that they wanted a drink and started walking over to the hole, some horses came running down the hill and they hot footed it out of there again. On the way out we drove past at least a hundred horses on the fields nearby. Apparently there are anywhere between 90 and 300 at any one time, so this was a pretty big gathering.

From here we drove east to the Quivertree Forest and Giants’ Playground, just outside Keetmanshoop. Both are owned by a farmer and his wife who also run a restcamp and have rescued several cheetahs. After a quick sandwich we went for a wander around the Giants’ Playground. It’s essentially an enormous area of balancing basalt rocks. We could imagine children having a ball running around, climbing the rocks … we were quite restrained and only did a bit of this! We then headed back for the cheetahs’ feeding time.

When we got there the cheetahs were obviously hungry and getting impatient. The two female cheetahs were making a high pitched squeak/barking noise and were also hissing, both at each other and us tourists on the other side of the fence. When Coenie, the owner, took in the bucket holding the fresh meat, they each dived in to claim their piece very quickly. Coenie explained that when they’re feeding that is pretty much all they are concentrating on, so you can do more or less anything with them other than surprise them. This is how we were able to safely stroke the tamest of them, which he’s had since it was very young. It was incredible getting so close up to a cheetah – they’re so sleek, with surprisingly soft fur and have amazing amber-coloured eyes that seem to glow and bore into you. You could certainly see the power in their jaws as they devoured the horse meat and then chewed on the skin. It was a little nerve-wracking when first crouching down next to it, but the thrill of stroking a wild animal soon kicked in, evident in the huge grin across Karen’s face.

The Quivertree Forest is the one of the largest collections of quiver trees in Southern Africa. They’re a species of aloe and quite unique-looking trees; almost like a piece of long stemmed broccoli. We hadn’t seen any of them until we’d got to the Skeleton Coast and it was quite something to see so many of them in the one area, particularly with the sun setting in the background. The one disappointment with our stay here was that the usually resident meerkats had obviously gone on holiday as they were nowhere to be seen. Damn those meerkats!

Our last few days in Namibia were spent around the Ai-Ais National Park. We stayed at the Canon Roadhouse for two nights, a very funky camp that has plants and trees growing in/out of old classic cars all around the site and the main building is decorated with car-related memorabilia. A very cool place.

After checking in we took a drive out to the Fish River Canyon, about 20km away. The canyon is 161km long, up to 27km wide and at its deepest nearly 550m: Africa’s answer to the Grand Canyon in the US. We found a spot away from the main viewing point and took in the vastness of the canyon, carved out by the Fish River 50 million years ago and originally created by faults. It was quite something to behold; we just wished that we’d had more time to explore it further. Perhaps if we were feeling a bit fitter we’d have considered the four to five-day/80-90km hike …?!

Leaving the Roadhouse behind we ventured to the other end of the park to the Ai-Ais Hot Springs Spa. Here we took advantage of the surroundings and treated ourselves to a massage and a dip in the warm (rather than hot!) springs-fed swimming pool. Despite being winter it was still warm enough to lie in the sun during the day. We also had another demonstration of the Afrikaans hospitality, having previously been offered places to stay after a mere ten minute conversation. In the pitch next to us was Marius, the manager of the Klawer Cellars wine estate. Not only did he bring us a lovely bottle of their Merlot to try, he also brought us a local delicacy of what’s known as sheep’s’ ears (but isn’t) and then the following day a bottle of Muscatel. Incredibly generous of him and it was all delicious. (www.klawerwine.co.za)

This concluded a very chilled end to our stay in Namibia … or so we thought. We drove through yet more beautiful, sparse scenery on our way to the border post – our final border crossing before reaching our destination country. When we got to the desk the immigration officer asked us why we’d outstayed our visa. Admittedly we had realised a couple of weeks previously that, rather than the 90-day visa we thought we’d been issued, we instead had a one-month visa. We really should have made arrangements to have it extended, but seeing as you are allowed to stay for 90 days, we didn’t think this would be a problem. It turns out we were wrong. We claimed ignorance and said that it had been a mistake (which it had) and that we hadn’t realised, but after a few phone calls and posturing, the officer told us that she would have to detain us and we’d need to explain ourselves to a magistrate. There was a small amount of nervousness when she didn’t seem to be backing down, wondering if she really was going to be a jobs-worth. Luckily, after some nibbling of humble pie, she let us off with a warning and we were able to continue on our way. Sod’s Law that out of all the countries we’ve travelled through, we nearly came unstuck right at the end.

It is a testament to Namibia that we stayed well beyond our original plan of 2-3 weeks. We thoroughly enjoyed exploring this country of vast wilderness. In many ways Namibia was quite different to the majority of African countries we’ve travelled through. For example, once outside the Caprivi, there are far fewer people selling fruit and veg on the side of the road and wood became harder to buy away from the camps. However, Kaokaoland very much reminded us of Ethiopia and Northern Kenya: perhaps due to the remoteness, children running to the side of the road to ask for sweets and pens, and seeing tribes people for the first time in quite a while.

The Namibian countryside is really something to behold. Nowhere before have we experienced a country where, throughout it, you can drive for hours without seeing another person. Even when leaving the capital, Windhoek, within what seemed like only a few minutes we were back to driving between vast acres of farmland, with barely a building in sight. Don’t think that this would make for a boring drive though … quite the opposite. The landscape changes with surprising regularity, from the colour of the ground, to the type and frequency of the foliage, to the surprise of the wildlife spotted in the most barren of places.

Namibia is definitely a top five country from the trip, but more of that, along with a few statistics, coming soon in the next, and last, blog update.

 

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