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Meeting three Himba women in Opuwo

We both woke feeling much refreshed after our first night in a proper bed for what feels like ages but what in practice is only a week. We had breakfast on the patio looking out over the valley below us and then tried to get information about getting out to some of the local Himba villages. We have a couple of options of what we can do from here, one of which is to head up to Epupa Falls on the border with Angola. It will take up two to three days which we don’t really have and will also put our 4x4 skills (which we also don’t really have!) to the test. Our preferred option is to a visit a village in the Opuwo area and then to head south.

The lady at reception didn’t really seem to sure of what the options were. She muttered something about a hotel guide but then veered off and started to talk about guides in town. She gave us a piece of paper with the names of number of three guides, only one of which was available. Stef called him a while later hoping to get something more than a village trip from him but to no avail. What also seemed odd for a guide is that he didn’t have his own transport, he would simply come in ours. Not a problem if you have the space but our truck has no room for a third passenger.

We gave up on that option and headed down into town. We needed to top up with petrol. For such a small place it was surprising to see Shell, BP and Caltex all with filling stations. The people from Camping Car Hire had warned us that often there is no petrol in Opuwo and people can get stuck there for a few days waiting for supplies. The Shell didn’t have what we wanted but BP turned up trumps. We were luckier than others. As we were leaving the hotel we were stopped by a car with an English girl and a local guide in it. She had been promised a lift back to Windhoek today which would get here there in time for her bus connection to Cape Town, but the person giving her a lift had changed their mind. She was stranded in Opuwo and on the hunt for someone heading south.

The BP station seemed to be the central hub of town activity. People were just milling around it with seemingly no purpose other than to sit, while away the day and have a chat. A couple of women came up with baskets of curios for sale and tried to persuade us to buy. It was quite easy to resist. What was interesting though was seeing the different types of local dress. Most people were in western clothes but there were Himba ladies with the ochre skins and scant clothing and women from another tribe with very large and floral dresses. It was a real mix of styles and contrasts.

With the hotel not being great with local information we stopped off at the local tourist information booth which Lonely Planet claims has very helpful staff. We woke up the guy on duty as we got there and he stretch and yawned away while not really giving us a huge amount of anything that was useful. He implied the road to Epupa would be OK for us to travel on and that it would take us past a demonstration Himba village, one that it used to getting many tourists. We left unconvinced and went for a drive up and down the main street, getting some good people photos along the way.

In less than an hour we were back at the hotel and camped out on the patio of the upstairs bar. Stef decided to give reception one last go, which this time was manned by one of the management team. He said that the hotel had a half day tour to a local village and we could go this afternoon with a small group of other guests if we wanted to. We booked up and got ourselves ready to go. The other guests were two German couples one of whom acted as translator for the others whose English was not so good.

Our guide was Konsa, a cheery chap who works for the hotel. He drove us out of town for about half an hour to one of the nearby Himba villages and for the next three hours was a mine of information about their culture and lifestyle as well as a guide who made it possible for us to visit one of the villages. He told us how Himba is just one sub set of the Herero tribe. Himba society is dominated by the men of the village. Women accept their decisions without question and it is the women who preserve the traditional way of life and dress, many of the men now being dressed in shorts and European football shirts.

Each village is made up of a number of homesteads, each homestead in effect being a family unit. The men can marry as many women as they can afford and Konsa told us about one who had eight wives and thirty children. He must have been either incredibly happy with his lot or incredibly wretched! When a man is ready to marry, his parents find a suitable girl to be his bride. The father visits other villages and watches in the morning to see which eligible young girls are up and out early and doing their chores. When he has selected a suitable bride he pays her family for her in animals, usually about five goats. If they subsequently get divorced, the husband has to pay the brides family double the initial amount. If she remarries, the new husband has to pay the old husband for her – a complex process.

In the family unit the women seem to do the majority of the work. They collect the wood and water, cook, raise the children, build the houses and look after the animals. The men meanwhile seem to do not a lot other than follow their animals around wherever they may wander. As a man’s animal stock increases so does his wealth and so does the workload for his wife. If he can afford to he can take a second wife but only with the agreement of his first wife. He tells her who he is considering and she can say whether or not she likes that person and is happy for him to marry them. The first wife is in effect the husband’s second set of eyes and she veto’s any further marriages he enters into.

Education is a new concept to the Himba. The government are keen for their children to be educated as they recognise the need to have more educated people in Namibia. The tribes however are not so keen as educated children will not want to maintain the traditional Himba way of life. As a concession, one boy and one girl from each homestead are allowed to go to school but this is only on alternate days and only for an hour or two at a time. It’s a strange position as seeing the men of the village they are already moving away from their traditional lifestyle by dropping traditional dress. In the village we visited modern cooking pots were in evidence as were plastic jugs, metal tins, sports bags and other bits and pieces of the modern world.

Colourful and exotic Himbas
Himba girl, wearing a cooking pot

Konsa explained that the Himba do not really have a religion as such and do not believe in a god. They call on their ancestors to help them through times of trouble and ask their ancestors to call on God to help them. Each homestead has a sacred fire which is used for rituals on marriage, death or to ask for help with resolving problems or curing the sick. To us it simply looked like a jumble of trees but to them it is important.

One of the main customs of the Himba is the practice of daubing their bodies in ochre paste. Only the women now maintain this tradition which protects them from sunburn and insect bites, a bit like the Beothuk Indians we came across in Canada. The paste is made from ground ochre, and butter fat. The women smear it on their bodies twice a day and it is their equivalent of a shower. They never wash unless they have to go to the hospital (the medical staff will not tolerate the ochre paste as it comes off on absolutely anything and would make a mess in the hospital). To keep themselves clean the women burn mall pieces of the branch of a local tree and hold the smoking wood under their armpits so that the smoke can perfume their skin. They also crouch over the tray of smouldering wood to cleanse their whole body and this is how they keep clean.

The women are daubed head to toe in the paste including their hair. Their hair is matted together into long braids. They use the hair from their children, husband and sometimes hair they buy in town to make the braids longer. Every three months they untangle their braids and re-do them, a process that can take two to three days. Hair patterns also indicate age in the Himba’s children, not that they keep any exact records of birthdays. They will simply refer to the “year we had good rain” or “year that war started”. With girls, they will initially have just one braid coming down over the front of their head, then two, then two more on the back of their head. Boys have a patterned design cut into their hair on the top of their head until they are circumcised, after which they have one braid running down the back of their head. The rest of their heads (girls and boys) are shaven clean.

When a girl reaches puberty it is a sign she has reached womanhood. Her parents keep her inside the family hut for five days which is a way of announcing to the outside world that she is ready to be married. A cow or goat is slaughtered in celebration and skin is used to make a headdress for her, a flat piece of skin with six tubes of skin attached vertically to it. This is just one piece of her traditional dress. The most important is a sort of necklace made of metal beads, leather and a large shell that rests between her bare breasts. Without this piece of her costume a Himba woman deems herself to be naked. With it, she is still naked by Western standards.

Animal skins are used to make a sort of skirts which swings and sways behind her as she moves. On each ankle she wears a ring made of metal beads. The beads on her right leg come from her father, those on her left leg come from her mother. Initially there are just a few rows of beads but more are added with each child she has. If a parent dies, the respective ankle bracelets are taken off until seven days after the parent has been buried.

It is an incredible sight to see a group of Himba women all sat around chatting covered in red ochre and wearing not a lot. Their costume incorporates a lot of metal and can weigh up to 12kg, no mean weight when you have to walk long distances to the nearest water hole or town. Many can simply do no more than shuffle along under the weight.

As we came into the village we had to pay our respects to the village elders and the chief, a wizened old man with one leg who mused about how he would like a nice young German or English girl for his next wife. As we passed through the village saying moro, moro, moro (hello) I was surprised when one of the girls asked me in English what my name was. Hers was Maria and a bond was instantly made between us.

Later in our visit Maria showed us the inside of her hut. Typical of all the huts in the village it was round, built of tall tree branches with the gaps in between packed in with a mixture of dung, mud and butter fat. The conical roof was thatched with grasses and the floor was of beaten earth. Hooks around the walls provided a place to hand the various pots, pans and bags needed for family life and a small dip in the centre of the hut made a small hearth, not for cooking but for a small fire to keep away flies and to provide much needed warmth in the winter months. Animal skins on the floor were the only approximation. The bushes outside the village acted as the WC with stones, or leaves being the loo roll.

The village, and in fact all of the surrounding countryside is covered in Mopane trees. These are very important trees for the Himba people. The roots boiled in water provide a cure for coughs and colds, and slightly chewed leaves provide an antiseptic patch for soothing and healing cuts and wounds.

Our visit was rounded off by the local ladies opening up their curio shop. Many of the items for sale were parts of their traditional dress or the bottles made out of cow horns that they use for storing pastes and ointments. They also had a collection of bracelets and necklaces that looked very definitely tailored to the tourist market. In amongst the Himbas was a lady from another Herero tribe, the Banderas. Her dress was based on a design copied from the German ladies who had first come to Namibia. It was a full length multi coloured affair and ones we had seen in town looked as if they were wrapped up in a duvet. The dress was topped with a hat the style of which represents the horns of the cows these people own.

Sunset reflected in the pool

We both thoroughly enjoyed the visit and not only told our guide this but also had the chance to tell the hotel manager. As we sat having a sundownder a group of three men asked us to join them. They turned out to be the manager of the Opuwo Lodge, his boss who owns the chain of hotels and a friend, whose birthday it was. They seemed to be doing a whistle stop tour of their lodges and the friend, who is a photographer, was along to take up to date pictures. He was slightly tiddled when we joined them and a few more schnapps and whiskey and sodas later he ended up having an alcoholic birthday.

Willem, the owner of the hotel chain, was in fine form and was very passionate about Namibia. He asked us about our plans to tour his country, told us where his other lodges were and promised to give us very good discounts if we went there. He tried to persuade us to change our plans for the next few days and instead of driving south to go with him in his plane to their lodge north of Etosha and then down to Windhoek. He would, he said, arrange for someone from the hotel to drive our car back to Windhoek for us. It was tempting but took us the wrong way and with not many days to spare we declined. I think the Opuwo hotel manager was relieved as he didn’t look too happy at the prospect of one of his team having to go to Windhoek and back!

One of the interesting bits of the conversation with them was about Malaria. They told us that in Namibia (or was it Africa as a whole?) more people die of Malaria than of Aids related diseases. They also told us not to take the malaria tablets that doctors in Europe tell you are a must. If you get infected by a malarial mosquito the tablets simply hide the symptoms and make the diagnosis more difficult so much so that people with malaria are often told they just have the flu. Which is true we probably will never find out but they said don’t take the tablets but if you feel ill get to a doctor who knows about tropical medicine.

Red Duiker or a Klipspringer
Herero women

We woke to yet another clear day and again felt well rested after a luxury night in a proper bed. We have enjoyed our stay at the lodge and if time and money were on our side I think we would both be tempted to stay for another night, or two, or three…. The staff here have all been very friendly and attentive, almost overly so but perhaps that is due to the low number of guests here at the moment. We checked out with the offer of a free extra night not materialising into a discounted free night for one of our two nights so far – no surprise there really.

It seemed strange to be packing out stuff up again into our 4x4. It’s amazing how quickly you can adjust to a different lifestyle, although I have to admit that adjusting to a hotel is much easier than adjusting to a tent on top of a truck! Amazingly the fridge had kept things cool even though it had been off for over two days. We did a quick stop at the craft centre in Opuwo before heading out. Stef had seen a different type of tribal head-dress decorating one of the walls in the hotel and out guide from yesterday said we may be able to find one at the shop and we did. It’s all very interesting stuff but whenever you touch it you get covered in red ochre and these latest acquisitions in particular have a unique smell to them. Hopefully it will wear off before we need to get this stuff through customs checks but somehow I doubt it.

We headed down on the C43 towards Sesfontein. There was no surprise tarmac surface for us here, in fact it was the roughest road we have been on so far. It was reasonably wide but very stony and there had been no programme of filling in the dips and levelling out the hills as they have just done on the C35 so it was up and down lots of river crossings all the way. Himba villages lined the road here and there, some with signs that made us both feel there were the destinations the less professional guides in town would take you to. Before long though we were out in the wilds of the countryside and over the full course of the next three hours we encountered three tour jeeps, a tractor pulling a broken down lorry, three cars and two carts being pulled by horses.

A couple of times as we stopped to take photos children appeared out of nowhere along the side of the road. After the first couple we wised up to what they were after. Being true to their tribal name they were begging for anything they could get – pens, sweeties (their word not ours!), money – and their hands soon came into the windows to ensure they could get a good look around at whatever you might have that they thought they should get. After that experience we just waved as we passed by and kept the windows firmly shut.

For what seemed like an endless time we were passing through wide open landscapes that didn’t change for mile after mile. Mopane trees lined the roads on either side and grasses were growing everywhere. Grass also grew along the road an indication both of how wet it has been this year and of how little traffic passes along this road. It was definitely not a place that you wanted to pick up a puncture.

Gradually the landscape started to change and we started to climb slowly. There were no discernable hills, just a gradual incline upwards broken only by the endless dips in the road where the water runs in the wet season. We passed Omao, a small village that makes it onto our map but which is really no more than a collection of a few houses. Modern ways are evident here as unlike the huts in the villages towards Opuwo which had thatched grass roofs, here they were made of sheets of corrugated iron that glimmered and shone in the sunlight.

After Omao the road did start to climb and we soon came upon the Joubert Pass, the only stretch of tarmac we were to see on the whole 135km trip today. The tarmac probably only stretch for about one kilometre but it was definitely needed. There is a steep incline on either side of the pass and even with the tarmac we struggled up in second gear. Driving this stretch on a gravel surface would, I think, be a guaranteed recipe for sliding off the edge of the road. Once over the pass the road followed the curve of the hills and you really couldn’t make out where it was ahead of you. There was no clear gravel track it was simply the bottom of a river bed that you drive along so it was just as well it hadn’t been raining.

On the other side of the pass the landscape had definitely changed and the first signs of desert were evident. A small village on the side of the road was housed in the middle of large boulders rather than grass and the whole landscape was much more dry and arid. Knowing that we had gone the distance we expected to we both started to scan around for Sesfontein fort, our planned stop for the night but it was nowhere to be seen. Ahead of us a wide open flat valley floor stretched away with trees dotted around but no signs of life.

We wound our way along the valley and then came to a junction, Sesfontein was a further 12km along a smaller side road. The first river crossing we came to would be impassable in the rainy season. Dry now, it was deeper than the height of our truck and the water must come raging and crashing down along the river course. Our road took us through a smaller and greener valley which made both of us think of large country estates back home. The trees here too were different, no longer Mopane trees but more like upright willow trees, not that that really makes any sense.

Finally we reached Sesfontein, another tiny village with a collection of houses and huts. Here though there are also some shops but I doubt they have much of note on their shelves. We found our way to Sesfontein Fort, which seemed to be the best option of a place to stay. The ladies tending the local petrol station gave us a friendly wave as we passed them and made our way to what reminded me of my brother’s toy fort that he had as a small kid. Square crenellated towers formed the corners of low brick walls so I doubt the fort acted as much of a defensive barrier when it was built by the Germans.

Behind the walls is a landscaped courtyard with fountains keeping the grounds green. There are no signs to point you where to go but only one door was open which led into the reception area and restaurant. Here we had a friendly welcome from the family’s dog, paid our camp fees and went and set up our site. The plots are large and open and as the only campers there we had the pick of the sites, just as well because it was searingly hot and we were able to pick a site with lots of shade.

Cozy camp

Being dab hands now at this camping lark we had soon got our tent up, sleeping bags out to air and lunch on the go. Stef went off to test out the hotel pool while I sat and caught up with my diary. He came back about half an hour later in a state of disbelief. When we got here I had had to chase them for the key to open up the shower block and as I went in search of help I passed the pool which was pretty mucky and dirty. The water looked like it hadn’t been changed for a while and there were loads of leaves and bits of muck floating on the top, a total contrast to the pool at Opuwo Lodge which was cleaned on a daily basis and had a constant flow of fresh water.

Before getting in for a swim Stef asked for the pool to be cleaned but the token skim of leaves off the top didn’t really do the trick. When he asked again for it to be cleaned the receptionist/female owner overheard him doing so. A group of Belgian’s had just arrived, strange as when we asked earlier if there were other people expected tonight we were told we were the only ones, and she seemed to be a bit stressed out about it. Their tour guide seemed to have disappeared and wasn’t doing what he should have been. To make matters worse the Belgians were committing the crime of walking around the garden drinking beer and they were told off and told not to do so.

The receptionist/owner told Stef the pool was clean, said the dirt was flaking paint, which it wasn’t, and said that if he wasn’t happy she would get her husband to come and have a word. She had a pretty bad attitude but nothing compared to her husband. His response was that as campers we were only using the pool out of the kindness of his heart and that if we didn’t like it at Sesfontein Fort we could go somewhere else. He also stated that he didn’t have the time to keep cleaning the pool every day, not a great indication of the overall level of cleanliness of his hotel. When Stef said that we would comment on our website about this he got even more arsey telling him that we couldn’t do that, but as you know we can and we have.

His attitude stank and it was really not what we would expect to get from a hotelier anywhere, let alone one who clearly knows that his hotel/campsite is really the only choice in town. Had it not been so late in the day we would have packed up and left but to do so now would have meant driving in the dark on dirt roads, a prospect neither of us relish. What was most frustrating about this is that the campsite is in a pretty unique setting, a small oasis ringed with palm trees, but the attitude of the owners has really been a bit of a dampener for us. So travellers beware, Sesfontein is a unique spot but the owners of the Fort need to learn a lot about the tourist trade.

We spent our evening in the company of the local donkeys enjoying a quiet night in front of our campfire. A German couple had also come onto the campsite but had locked themselves away inside their camper van. In the distance we could hear local women singing, a real scene setter for the evening. The stars gradually came out to play and we ended up having a pretty hot and sticky night under canvass.

Welcoming roadside stall

We did have a hot and sticky night and even though we had our mossie net down in the tent I must have had my hand right up against it as I picked up a few new bites overnight. The showers block was also full of mossies so even though the shower itself was pretty good it was not somewhere you wanted to linger long. We were up and out at a reasonable time heading back through the Sosfentein valley towards the main C43 southbound.

A few kilometres on we were waved down by a man standing next to an empty 4x4 truck. A group of women and children of varying ages were sitting on the side of the road and he and another man came to talk to us. They had run out of petrol and asked if we could help. They were very quick to hop into the back of our truck and help us get out our jerry can of spare fuel, a necessity here as petrol supplies can be sporadic and distances between petrol stations potentially large. The two litres turned out to be slightly more but we were happy to help. How true the “sick child who we have to take to hospital in Sesfontein” story was we will never know but it was our good deed for the day.

We joined back onto the main road which took us again through the huge open expanse of a large valley. The landscape here is really strange. The tops of the mountains/hills surrounding the valley are all flat as if someone has come along with a large knife and levelled them off. And it goes on for miles and miles and miles…… Finally we reached Palmwag, noticeable only by the signs to the Palmwag resort off to the right and a light aircraft sat on the landing strip to the left. The petrol station here had supplies so we topped up even though we had only used a quarter of a tank.

At the junction with the C40 we pulled in to get some cold drinks and Stef, camera in hand, was soon the main attraction. The local ladies seemed keen to have their photos taken and before long he was back at the truck with Raymunda and Catherine in two who have given us their address so that we can send them copies. This next stretch of road was again a bit rough in parts but Stef steered us safely over rocky hills, along river beds (fortunately dry) and through sandy sections. Some of the landscape we passed reminded us both of parts of Scotland we’ve been to with low rolling hills covered in what looked like heather and grasses.

We turned off along the C39 in the direction of Tywfelfontein again bumping along rough bits of road. A debate was ongoing on a slightly silent basis about where we would spend the night. The lodge we stayed at in Opuwo has a branch at Twyfelfontein too and much as I think we both would have quite happily gone there, common sense prevailed and we stopped at the Abu Huab campsite instead. The campsite runs along the side of the river and has large sandy plots with tables, fire pits and a new bar area.

Still with a few hours of daylight to spare we headed a few more kilometres further down the road to see one of the local sights, an area rich in 5,000 (approx.) year old rock paintings. Our edition of Lonely Planet says you can wander around these on your own but that’s no longer the case. A friendly chap meets you at the car park, which to our surprise was full, and then directs you to the visitors information centre. Here you pay your fees and wait for the next guide to become available. Our guide, Charles, was ready in just a few minutes and we set off with two other couples.

The area where the cave paintings are is now just a vast area of dry scrub land set in a valley ringed on either side with large sandstone hills. The first European settler in this area, D Levin, built a small mud brick house here for his wife and five children. It was he who gave Twyfelfontein its name, which means doubtful spring, in recognition of the fact that the water supply is not constant. The house has long since been abandoned and is now in ruins, although it is protected by a low wall asking people not to cross. Behind and attached to the Levin house is a smaller concrete house, also now a ruin, which is where the guard who was the first person to protect the cave paintings used to live.

A small marked out trail leads around what at first sight looks to be an anonymous wall of rock. It is probably a few hundred metres from the visitors centre to the ruined hosues and then a few hundred more to the first paintings. Here a metal viewing platform has been built so that you can get the best views of the paintings. They were etched into the sandstone by the San people who used to live in this area. At that time the rains were good and the valley was green and fertile, very different to how it is today. The sandstone was soft and easy to carve.

The paintings were used to educate and inform other people in the village about animals and were also sometimes used as a communication tool. The pictures depicted local animals such as giraffe, elephants and rhino as well as the seals and penguins that San people had seen when they went to the coast. Waterholes also featured in the drawings. While we were looking at the carvings of rhino’s Charles told us the main differences between black and white rhinos, which are the same colour. The black rhino can lift its head up and eats from leaves on trees. Black rhino babies walk behind the mother. The white rhino cannot lift its head and only grazes grasses on the ground. Its babies walk in front of the mother.

Ancient rock paintings at Twyfelfontein
Glorious sunset

At the start of the tour not knowing what to look for we missed many cave paintings along the path. Having spent just a few minutes with Charles we soon started to see paintings pretty much everywhere we looked. The San were cave dwelling people and paintings were dotted about all over the sides of the hills. Now the only animals of size that we saw living in this area was a group of monkeys who had been chattering and barking away as we walked around the site. We were probably there for about an hour in total, long enough to get a feeling for the place and for the 2,500 paintings that have been found so far in this area.

On our way back we decided we had enough time to see the Burnt Mountain and Organ Pipes, two other local attractions, before the sun set. We followed the road down to the right and soon found the burnt mountain. In contrast to the red sandstone all around it, one mountain side was black, as if someone had poured a vast vat of oil down the stone or that it had literally been set fire to. It was interesting to see but didn’t really rank up there as a top sight for us.

We were surprised that we hadn’t seen a sign for the organ pipes, columns of dolerite (basalt) rock and just assumed that we needed to follow the road beyond the burnt mountain. This quickly degenerated into a small very bumpy track which looked as if no one had been along it for a long time. We switched into 4x4 mode and Stef drove on for a short while, despite me pleading being a whimp and telling him he should turn back. Eventually he did also decide we were going the wrong way. I almost had kittens though as we went back down one short hill. It was a steep incline rutted with deep holes and you could hear the bottom of the truck scraping along the floor. I had visions of us toppling over nose forward but Stef navigated us down safe and sound. He later admitted that he knew we’d gone the wrong way all the time and that he just wanted to have a play with the 4x4 on a bit of rough track!

As we headed back on the road to the campsite I noticed that there was a car parked just off the road in the same spot where there had been a 4x4 truck earlier. We pulled in and met again one of the couples who had been in our group for the cave paintings. They waved us down a short hill into a dry river valley which is where the organ pipes were. We had seen a sign from the road as we’d passed it earlier but didn’t put two and two together. I have to say that the organ pipes were so unimpressive to me that they even made the burnt mountain look interesting. I suppose it is now one of the down sides of having seen so much in our travels around the world that we expect every sight listed in a guide book to wow us and look twice. The pipes were interesting rock formations, really just a collection of small vertical columns of rock but they didn’t have the wow factor.

The sun was setting as we headed back to camp lighting up a clear sky with fabulous organs and pinks. We set up our site and then headed to the small bar on the campsite where a couple of cold beers awaited. A French couple came and sat next to us and we chatted for a while sharing tales of where we have been so far in Namibia and swapping hints and tips. We were both feeling very settled in the bar and it was tempting to stay and have yet another beer. I persuaded Stef that we should cook rather than eat in the restaurant upstairs which depending on who you talked to either did or did not have food.

I think we probably had the quickest dinner on record, mainly due to using our gas burner rather than getting a braai (barbecue) going. Its amazing how tasty mince fried with onion then mixed in with a can of butternut squash stew can taste when you are hungry and slightly worse the wear for too many beers. The beers were also the culprit for us breaking what is no doubt another campsite golden rule. Neither of us could be bothered to walk a couple of hundred metres to get to the nearest washroom when there was a perfectly adequate tree not so far away. There is something very liberating about peeing in the open air on a dark night with just a few stars lighting the way and not really knowing whether a car is about to come round the corner and catch you in their headlights!

Barren northern desert, heading to the ominously named Skeleton Coast

We both had a very unpleasant and hot night. It was so hot that it was difficult to get to sleep and it felt as it the sweat was just dripping off us. It had been hot during the day yesterday compounded by the total lack of wind. I think I had fared better than Stef and managed to get some sleep so I left him in bed while I went in search of a shower. When we arrived at the campsite yesterday I had found one shower block which had tiny cubicles and no privacy at all so I had geared up for a Baby Wet Ones shower but a newer block by the bar was a much better prospect.

A large brick wall had been built around a tree to house a toilet and shower. The toilet “door” was simply a large branch that you could put across the opening to let people know it was occupied. The shower had a proper door but with no lock but there is some privacy provided by bamboo screens in case someone opens the door while you are in there. The shower was fabulous. You had a large room with the shower and sink and with no roof you could look up into the tree as you got clean. The cold water was lovely and warm, the hot too hot to use. After a sticky night I felt very refreshed until I had to put on my dusty clothes again to get back to our site. Everything we have seems to just get endlessly covered in dust.

Stef was joining the land of the living when I got back and while he went woke up I set up breakfast and got us going. The stickiness of the night was explained by the clouds all above us and soon it started to rain, fortunately not heavily but enough to be noticeable. While Stef went off to shower I packed us up as much as I could, relieved when he came back that he said he was feeling well enough to drive. I am sure that I would be fine if I had to get behind the wheel but I’d rather Stef drive on the rough bits than me.

We were both uncertain what the rain would mean to the road conditions. We were heading back the same way that we came yesterday so knew there were some sandy bits and some potentially slippery gravely bits. We had only really had a light shower of rain and if anything it helped to keep the dust down. We back tracked on the C39 but kept going westwards heading towards the coast.

About 30km before we hit the sea we hit the parks office of NWP (Namibia Wildlife Parks). Here we knew we had to get a permit to enter the park which would either be a transit permit or an overnight permit. We had no booking for accommodation or a campsite but had planned to go to the Terrace Bay Resort, a place about 60km north along the Skeleton Coast. The chap at the parks office didn’t seem to be having it though. He said you could only book to stay there at the office in Windhoek and that if he let us through it would get him into trouble. I knew he was blagging but it was Stef who sussed that a little money would smooth the way and get us the permit we wanted. We knew that if we got to Terrace Bay and for some reason they were full that we had enough time to head south again so we gave him a little extra and headed on our way.

The road we had followed today had taken us through increasingly dry and arid countryside but nothing compared to what was yet to come. We had seen a few zebra and ostriches and even up to the parks office there had been some stretches of green. It was almost as if the parks office was a manmade manifestation of the change in environment. Within a few kilometres of leaving it we were in totally barren land. There was little to see in either direction other than endless expanses of flat sandy landscape.

As we neared the ocean the wind picked up and I, cautious as ever, remembered the warnings we were given by the car rental place about not driving in sandstorms. This wasn’t really a storm as such but the wind was up and sand was blowing across the road, sometimes making it difficult to clearly see the outline of the road. Up ahead, a road sign appeared out of nowhere, an isolated patch of green in an otherwise brown environment. With sand blowing across the junction it was other worldly looking right and left and just being able to make out the road, not by its surface but by the line of stones that marked the edges.

Our route to Terrace Bay took us northwards so we turned right and headed into the sandy wilderness. For the first time in many months we were back driving along the Atlantic Ocean but this time on the side we had first been on when we left the UK. The last time we had seen these waters was back in September when we were in Canada and we both for a brief time transported back across the waves firstly to Canada and then back further to when we had flown across the Atlantic in May last year.

For the next hour or so we saw little in the way of vegetation. At one point we passed a clump of grasses growing out of the dunes, a welcome splash of green in an otherwise brown, sandy barren environment. Here though there were still a few riverbeds that we spanned that in the wet season take rains from the dunes down to the sea. Road works in one section showed that even here the rains can cause severe damage as crews were out rebuilding the surface of the road, in between their naps in the scoop at the front of the JCB that is!

At the Skeleton Coast

It was a strange drive up to Terrace Bay. On the one hand we had a real “end of the world” isolated feeling but oddly we passed more traffic here in an hour than we had done in a whole day over the last week or so. There is a quality to the place that makes you feel like you are on the surface of the moon or travelling through post apocalyptic part of the world where warfare has reduced everything to dust and people struggle to survive. It’s hard to believe that anyone can survive here and that is why this area is called the Skeleton Coast. When ships on their way round the cape ran aground here on the sandbanks there really was little hope of survival for their crews. Everywhere you look there are sand dunes and good sources of water are probably over 50km away.

With weariness setting in again we soon came across a small collection of corrugated iron roofed buildings, a small “settlement” that is the Terrace Bay resort. I’ve called it a settlement because as well as the buildings for visitors to stay in there is a small “village” where the people who work in the resort live. In tourist terms, resort is rather a grand name for what is here. There are ten double roomed “chalets” each room having an ensuite bedroom, a couple of self catering houses, a restaurant, the resort office and shop, a petrol pump and then the houses for the people who work here.

We were lucky that they had a room free for us to stay in tonight. Tomorrow they are fully booked and we would have had to turn around and drive another 180km or so to get to the next place to stay. The chap who checked us in seemed friendly enough but neither of us could decipher what he was saying. We just made the motions of going through the usual “check in” routine and it seemed to do the trick. He gave us a key and showed us on a map where our room was and off we toddled.

It’s a fantastically rustic place with a real old age charm. Our “half a chalet” gives us a large room with and ensuite all of which is furnished in 1960’s style furniture. It/s clean and neat and tidy but everything about it is a little bit dated. We have a view out over the sea and with the wind still blowing quite strongly I think we are both quietly pleased that camping is not an option here. Our room rate includes dinner and breakfast so we don’t even need to think about how we are going to feed ourselves.

We parked up, pulled out our overnight bits and pieces from the truck (now finally named Ned (the Nissan from Namibia)) as well as bits to make some lunch and went and settled ourselves inside. In the afternoon we went for a stroll along the beach and blew away the cobwebs of the last few days. The sun was behind us and felt relaxingly warm on my back but we were walking into the wind which had a definite cold edge to it. Disappointingly the beach here is not soft sand despite the dunes around us. Underfoot we walked along very shalely sand until we got close to the water’ edge where large pebbles were the norm. To me the pebble didn’t feel natural and I pondered whether they were some form of tactic against erosion. They seemed to be stacked up neatly along the shore and at right angles to the beach.

Stef had come prepared for his usual dip in the sea. The pebbles made it uncomfortable to walk without sandals on but while he was taking his off he got caught out by a slightly larger than average wave that soaked his feet. A minute or so later he got caught again by a bigger wave that soaked him up to the part of zip off trousers where he could zip them off, but hadn’t yet! I quietly chuckled at his expense and Stef claimed the water was nice and refreshing.

Most people who come to Terrace Bay come for the fishing but for us it was a quirky detour to see what was here and to have a walk up and down the bay. We wandered around for about an hour and then headed back to our room, pulled chairs out onto the patio outside and watched our first sunset over an ocean since we left Canada in early December. The skies did not disappoint and as the sun set it lit up the few clouds that were drifting across a mainly cloudless sky.

In the evening we headed up to the resort’s restaurant for dinner. The restaurant reminded me of somewhere else we have been to on our trip and the closest we could come was the restaurant at St Barbe in Newfoundland where we sat out a very windy day before being able to get the ferry across to Labrador. Dinner here was a buffet affair, simple food, slightly overcooked but washed down with a very good bottle of South African red wine. We got chatting briefly to a South African family who were here for the fishing. Inevitably they told us about places we should avoid and places we should go to, more to add to the never ending list of travel destinations.

We made our way back down the hill to our little chalet and holed up for the night. Inside it felt pleasantly warm but outside it was windy and fresh. As I wrote I could hear the surf crashing on the shore outside which had a strangely hypnotic effect.

Shipwreck along the Skeleton Coast

We woke this morning again to the sound of the sea outside. What started out as a dull and cloudy morning soon cleared up and the sun shone through. I think we were the last people up for breakfast, fishermen are obviously early risers, which was on a par with last night’s dinner, OK but a little overdone. We have enjoyed our brief stop at Terrace Bay but value for money is not something you get here. It has been more expensive that most of the places we have stayed in on our trip. Our room had quirky character but for the price you would expect more up to date facilities and the catering team could do with a refresher course. That said all of the staff here have been very friendly and welcoming.

With a full tank of petrol we set off heading south with no real firm plan of where we would end up at the end of the day. There are a few campsites marked along the way but we suspected that they would be as bleak and desolate as the one at Torra Bay, simply a few sites and washroom blocks on the beach with nothing else around for miles. Our suspicions were correct and needless to say we didn’t camp.

The first part of our trip today was simply backtracking along the route we had travelled up the coast yesterday. Where we had yesterday passed a small section with long green grasses growing we today noticed a pool of water off to the left of the road with a few ducks floating away and springboks grazing around the edge. We were surprised to see the springboks as they would have had to come across 30km or so of desert to get to this watering hole, which is probably salt water rather than fresh.

We spotted a couple of fishermen out trying their luck and pulled up for a quick chat. Their tackle is pretty impressive with the rods being about five metres long. Some people have specially designed trailers to carry them in, others have racks on the front of their cars with the rods held vertically fanning out against the wind. One chap didn’t want to talk obviously fearing that we were coming to learn and steal his tactics. The other was quite happy to chat away. He told us the fishing wasn’t too good at the moment because the wind and tides were strong and it made it hard work.

Carrying on south we were soon on the C34, a salt road than runs down the coast to Swakopmund. Around us was just total desolation. As far as you can see there is nothing other than sand, sand and more sand and you start to understand why this stretch of coastline is called the Skeleton Coast. Off shore there are sandbanks which over the years have caught ships off guard resulting in wrecks. For those that survived the wrecks this is a hostile place with no shade and no fresh water so few if any survived landing here. Hence the name.

There is some variation in the landscape though and it gradually creeps up on you. In some stretches there are small low bushes, odd splashes of green contrasting to the sand. The sand itself looks grey as if someone has either burnt the surface or tipped a huge ashtray out over it. Generally the road was solid and firm but in places a dusting of sand had built up which, when the wind was blowing, could make it difficult to see the road ahead.

After about forty minutes driving we saw a rare sight, a car coming in the other direction. Another twenty or so minutes further on we passed an abandoned oil rig, now lying ghostlike on its side in the sand. Further on a sign pointed down to the beach on our right, the place of one of the many shipwrecks to dot this line of coast. Most of the ship is long gone but some of the wooden structure remains and the metal winches used for pulling in the fishing nets. One of the winches still has rope wrapped round it ready and waiting for action.

Although we were driving through desert and sand there were still signs of the rivers that spring to life in the wet season. Long flat dips in the road were clearly the river beds and it must be a yearly task to recreate the roads after the rains. The Ugab River was not the largest but was the one that is still being repaired and was the bumpiest part of the ride. Just after this we were reached the other check point for the Skeleton Coast Park and “checked out”. Here there was a large group of South African men all heading up to Terrace Bay for the fishing. It was late morning when we got there, probably about 11:30, and they were already well on the way to alcoholic oblivion. Two women from Oxford were also there checking in to the park, both a little apprehensive at the thought of spending the night in a remote spot with a large group of drunken South African men. I’m sure they survived.

From here south the road quality improved. It was still not a tarmac road, except for one section way down south where a bridge (a novelty in Namibia) crossed a river. Marker posts showed the edge of the road along the way but even they did little to break the monotony of the drive. It’s easy to see how people manage to flip their cars on these roads. There is little to help keep your concentration and it’s easy to find your mind wandering. On the few occasions that we stopped to take a photo my eyes took a while to adjust to us being stationery and created the impression that the road was still moving beneath us even though we were going nowhere. It was the same sort of effect I’d had on the walkway of the Niah Caves in Malaysia.

As we clocked through the miles our thoughts started to turn to where to stay for the night. At Cape Cross we turned off to see the seal colony, thinking that we might stay at the lodge next door. Paying our park entrance fees we saw the prices for the lodge (around £150 for two people) and decided we would carry on south. Having seen the seals they also provided another good reason to keep going – there was a pretty unpleasant smell in the air!

Seal with an attitude at Cape Cross
Sunset at Swakopmund

Cape Cross is a small peninsula, named for the cross in honour of John 1 of Portugal which was erected by Diego Cao, the first European to set foot in South West Africa. The seals here are fur seals, a species that, unusually for seals, has ears. At any time during the year there are between 80,000 and 100,000 seals here and they totally cover the cape. Out at sea loads of seals were playing in the waves, surfing in on the tide and jumping through the larger waves further out. They looked like they were having great fun. On land, more were basking in the sun with playful young pups being growled at by older seals who were trying to get some kip.

From here we carried on south deciding to pass Hentiesbaai and carry on to Swakopmund. Stef by this stage was nodding off with boredom but fortunately I was driving at the time. The further south we headed the busier the road became with the traffic almost exclusively being 4x4’s loaded with fishing gear. Soon the outskirts of Swakopmund surrounded us and we headed down to the beach to stop and ponder options for accommodation. We checked in to the Strand hotel which not only had availability but also had a sea view. We rushed to get our gear out of the truck, dump it in our room and head out to the nearest bar so we would be in time to see the sun go down.

The Lighthouse bar had a great view across the bay and as we walked in I saw a man smiling with recognition at me. At the table next to us was one of the couples in our group when we saw the cave paintings at Twyfelfontein and we sat and chatted to them for a while. Not surprisingly we are heading in the same direction but they are now a few days ahead of us so it’s unlikely that our paths will cross again. They had bumped into the other people in our group and we had also seen some of the Germans we had visited the Himba village at Opuwo with. So within less than half an hour of our arrival at Swakopmund it lived up to its reputation as the tourist beach destination of Namibia.

At Terrace Bay it had been windy but warm but here, just 200 miles further south there was a definite chill in the air. We both started to get cold so I left Stef nursing his beer and popped back to our hotel for our fleeces. A few days ago I had had an “I want to be snug in my fleece” moment and here I was all snuggled up in my fleece and it felt great. We decided to stay at the Lighthouse for dinner and had a really tasty meal with Canadian sized portions.

Although we had not really travelled far in terms of distance the condition of the road means you are averaging just 45mph so it is slow going. Combined with the monotony of the scenery it also makes it a very tiring way to travel and before long we both reached the stage where we needed sleep. When I checked my watch we were both surprised at how early it was and we were tucked up in bed by 8:00pm – on a Saturday night!!

Bums on the beach
Inquisitive little chap

With a nice warm room to stay in we both slept in and then had a lazy morning, knowing that as it was Sunday there was little point in rushing to get out and about as most things would be closed. In the afternoon we went for an amble around town which, as predicted, was pretty deserted. On the road running along the side of the lighthouse Zimbabwean traders had set out their stalls on the pavement selling wood carvings and textiles. This was really the only true African sight we saw all day.

Swakopmund is a very German place. The old buildings all have a very German feel to them from the hotels to the legislative and administrative offices. But the benefit of it being Sunday was that with no traffic we were able to get some pretty good photos of the buildings with clear and uninterrupted views. In some ways though we could have been in Canada or the US. All of the streets were very wide, definitely geared up for motorised traffic. Where “new” buildings have gone up they tended to be anonymous low rise characterless box shaped buildings.

Tucked away in a little courtyard we found the cinema which looks like it just has one screen that shows different films about four or five times a day. Round the corner were a couple of “gentleman’s outfitter” type stores that sold everything you could possibly want to wear on your safari around Namibia. Beige clothes are almost a uniform here. We also found the Brauhaus, a typical German eatery which we will come back to tomorrow when it’s open.

We made our way down to the beach and headed for The Tug, a restaurant that has been built around … yes you guessed it, an old tug boat. A family were in having a big meal which looked like it was a celebration of a christening or some other religious event. Apart from them and a family of four, whose kids smashed glasses and they just sat there doing nothing about it, we were the only people there. Being so close to the sea we had a light fish lunch which was superb, we can definitely recommend the place.

The beach then beckoned and our sandals came off and our trousers were rolled up as we went for a stroll along the shore. We had to dip our toes into the Atlantic but it was a bit of a shock. The water was so cold that your ankles froze up initially only thawing out after a few minutes. Stef persevered longer than me, despite also getting a very good soaking from a rogue wave that caught him unawares.

As we reached the quay we decided to go and sit on the point watching the waves roll in and the seals just lying there taking a nap. People went very close up to the seals but they simply ignored them and carried on snoozing. The Lighthouse Bar beckoned again for a sundowner but this time the cold got the better of us and rather than getting our fleeces and carrying on drinking we headed back to the warmth of our hotel room for a few hours.

The restaurant next door provided our meal for the night. It is yet another place focussing on the local sea food, or feesh, as they like to call it (the owners are Greek). We had a tasty meal but the cold got to us and we were soon back in our room and tucked up for the night.

Rocks at the Kristall Galerie
Biggest crystal in the world
The Free Press of Namibia, "still telling it like it is"

Having arrived in Swakopmund in glorious sunshine and benefited from it yesterday we woke this morning to sea mist. As we watched the daily routine of clearing the seaweed from the beach we pondered whether the mist would clear but it gave no signs of doing so. So we had another relaxed morning in our room.

In the afternoon we headed out to see one of Swakopmund’s main sights, the Kristall Galerie, which is home to the largest single crystal cluster in the world. It was a quirky little place. You start in a small courtyard out the back where lots of bits of polished stones of all different sorts are scattered around a “garden” for you to go and rummage through. One lady there seemed to have bought a bag from reception that enabled her to fill it up with stones. She was particularly partial to the blue ones.

Our route then led us through a replica of the tunnel the original excavators went through when they found the large crystals. It was a bit of a tacky plasticky affair but I bet kids have great fun running through it and touching all the plastic crystals that are embedded into the walls. The tunnel brings you out into a large, open, brightly lit room where the largest crystal is proudly on display. It is pretty big, weighing about 14 tonnes. From the front you expect it to be almost a circular lump but while the front is still ridged and lumpy with crystals the back is a smooth flat face, presumably from where they have carved it out of the rock. The project to excavate the crystals took something like eight years to complete and it sounds like they had to carve out half a hill to get to them. A few smaller, but still very big, crystals are also on display on the ground floor.

Upstairs there is a gallery looking down into the main hall. Here there are displays on the different types of crystals commonly found in Namibia. I think if you are a geologist and/or a rock collector it would be a mine (pardon the pun) of useful information. While it was interesting to look at the different types of crystals the technical information displayed about them was a bit dry and hard going to digest. We opted not to go into the jewellery shop where I am sure people spend lots of money on items of dubious taste. On the ground floor a few windows let you see in to watch the local women sorting stones and making jewellery. It was not of our taste!

Having found the crystals hard to digest we went for something a bit more palatable stopping at the Out of Africa coffee shop. They claim that “life is too short to drink bad coffee” so Stef had high expectations, which weren’t met with his middle of the road cappuccino. Even so it was a nice place to sit for a while and watch the world go by, not that there was much of anything happening even though it was Monday.

We spent a few hours in the afternoon catching up with emails at a little internet café in one of the “malls”. Here the coffee was better, but only marginally so. By about 7:00pm we had both had enough and headed for the Brauhaus where we hoped to eat. It looked pretty full as we walked up to it and sure enough for tonight they were fully booked so we stayed and had a couple of beers at the bar, booking in for tomorrow instead. It’s certainly a busy place with huge steaming platefuls of food coming out of the kitchen in a steady stream.

With hunger well and truly kicked in by the addition of a couple of beers we went in search of somewhere to eat, again bumping into the German’s we had visited the Himba village in Opuwo with. Being so small, Swakopmund doesn’t seem to have an abundance of different places to choose from but we soon found another nice German place and settled into a table for two. The food was really tasty but the Canadian sized portions defeated us both and we then waddled back to our hotel and to bed.

Arches at the Woermannhaus

There is something about this place that just makes you take life easy. Every day we have got up early, thrown clothes on and headed down to breakfast but its then taken us a couple of hours to actually get ourselves showered and out and about. Today was no exception. We had decided to do a local scenic drive so stopped in town at the NWR office to pick up our park permits (which nobody checked at all) before heading out.

Our route took us along the Trans Kalahari Highway for a few kilometres before we turned off back onto a dirt track and through sandy desert. We were on a quest to find the Welwitschia plant, a strange plant that lives for many years but only has two leaves. The leaves seem to separate and in effect I suppose, fray, as the plant gets older. They survive by soaking up ground water around their roots so they are very fragile and susceptible to damage from people tramping about too close to them.

The drive is a pretty well defined route and the NWR have identified points of interest along the way which they have marked with signposts. We didn’t really stop at the sign posted places along the way, opting instead to just pull up when we saw something that caught our eye. The drive is called the Welwitschia and Moon Landscape drive and you soon understand why the latter part is relevant. The scenery is really other worldly. We stopped at a small plateau and looked out across the “valley” below. This was full of small hills interlocking with each other as if a hug river had flowed down and carved out lumps and bumps along the valley floor.

We’ve already driven through vast swathes of bare and barren land here in Namibia but this place looked even more so. You picture NASA filming here and pretending that they had sent astronauts to some strange planet light years away. The road wound down and around, for the most part in pretty good nick. We were sharing the driving and as soon as I took over we hit a really lumpy bit with ridges galore from where the water had drained away over the years. I took it slowly and carefully struggling to find that optimal speed where the bumps weren’t too bad. On the way back Stef was driving and of course just flew over them!

After a couple of hours we finally made it to the purpose of the drive, a 1,500 year old Welwitschia plant. It is so rare and delicate that it is now surrounded by a wire fence and a small viewing platform has been erected so that you can see down and onto the top of the plant. How they have managed to age it is beyond me. It seemed to have lots of different leaves all coming from some sort of central core. It almost seemed like a cactus in some ways and had seed pod like lumps interspaced between the leaves. It certainly ranks as one of the strangest, as well as one of the oldest, plants I have ever seen.

Moon landscape
Fifteen hundred year old welwitschia mirabilis, another Namibian oddity

On the way out to the drive we had passed what looked like a checkpoint for some sort of a race. A lone chap was running in shorts and vest with a pack on his back so I though it was some sort of endurance running race. On the way back though we kept passing lots of quad bikes and back at the main road there was quite a cluster of them. We stopped to take a photo but were waved on by the police car that had obviously been sent out to keep order. There did seem to be some sort of poster and banner explaining what it was all about but we didn’t have the chance to stop and read it.

Back in Swakopmund we headed down to the aquarium which, along with the Kristall Galerie, is one of the main things to do. It is the only one in Namibia and it is a small but interesting place to visit. There is one main tank and a few smaller tanks mounted into the walls around the outside of the building. The main tank has a glass tunnel leading through it so that you can get really close up to the animals in the tank. We had timed it well arriving a few minutes before the 3:00pm feeding session.

Soon a chap in full scuba and wetsuit gear was climbing over the wall and lowering himself down into the tank. He had a small bag with a hole just large enough to put his hand in and pull out some food. Soon he was the most popular thing in the tank with the fish coming close to him to get some food. Most persistent were the large turtles that he continually had to bat away. One was so hungry it gave up on getting the bits of fish on offer and started to munch away on the strap holding the divers goggles on.

It was definitely worth being at the aquarium at feeding time. Although it is small, you only need about half an hour to visit it, they had a wide enough range of fish and small sharks to keep our interest. We walked upstairs where you can look down into the tank. It’s pretty hard to see anything much from here as they continually pump fresh seawater in so the surface is always rippled. We did though see the large turtles coming up to the surface to get some air. The biggest one must have been over a metre long and about half a metre wide at least.

After the aquarium we went back to the hotel and just relaxed for a few hours, watching a very funny film called The Actors starring Michael Caine. In the evening we headed out for a quick drink at Fagin’s Bar before going to the Brauhaus for dinner. A large screen in the corner of the bar was playing a video of a group of people who had been out sand boarding and the bar seemed to be full of the people who starred in the film. They looked as if they had had quite a lot of fun but it also looked like pretty hard work.

As we walked in to the Brauhaus we bumped into the South African couple who had been in our group touring around the cave paintings in Twyfelfontein. It really is a small place for a country that is so big. We were shown to our table and had a very tasty meal. I had kudu (a type of antelope) stew with German spätzle noodles which was for me the best meal in a restaurant I have had on our trip so far. Stef had a tasty plate of roast pork with red cabbage (one of my favourites) and potatoes. It was a lovely way to round off our stay in Swakopmund.

Can you read the label?

Before leaving Swakopmund we did a last final run past the internet café to get as much stuff up to date as we could then headed out down the coast to Walvis Bay. The coast here is as stark as it was further north and it is hard to imagine people coming here for their two weeks annual R&R. Rising out of nowhere though there was a small seaside resort with campsites, self catering bungalows and hotels. It looks like it is doing well as more and more buildings seemed to be going up. It was an odd sight to see as it was bordered on one side by the Atlantic and on the other three by desert.

Walvis Bay came and went, another dusty seaside town but one we didn’t go to have a look at. We headed inland on the C14, another endless gravel road that again took us through vast open spaces with little vegetation other than grass. Our map showed that we would have to go through a couple of passes on this road and I’d expected them to be steep climbs up mountains and down the other side. Not so. Here the passes were driving down and across riverbeds formed in what looked like large cracks in the earth’s surface. They were pretty dry now and are obviously popular places because very rustic campsites were available at both of the passes we went through.

Our route took us further south and along the way we passed the Tropic of Capricorn, adding South Africa alongside Argentina and Chile as countries where we have passed this Tropic overland. There’s nothing much to mark the spot other than a sign by the side of the road but even so we had to get out and take a photo. More vast empty landscape stretched ahead of us until we finally made it to Solitaire. Willem de Wet, the owner of the Namibia Lodge chain that we had met in Opuwo told us about his lodge at Solitaire. Apart from the lodge and the petrol station next door it was hard to see what else made up this village. It was a funny sight to see because the only traffic was a steady stream of 4x4 trucks, some with tent on the top, others just cars, stopping off to fill up with petrol. Even if your tank is almost full you still top up at every opportunity.

Our plan for tonight was to head for the Naukluft National Park. Our only problem was that from our map it was not really clear which was the best way to go to get to the entrance. I had meant to ask at Solitaire but forgot to do so. As every time we ask how long it will take to get somewhere we are told “two and a half hours” only to find out it’s five hours, I suspect that we wouldn’t have got accurate information anyway. We followed our instincts staying on the C14 rather than turning off onto the C19. It turned out to be the right decision. As the Naukluft Mountains loomed into view the road followed the curve of them around and at Bullsport we turned off onto the D854.

A few kilometres on we went through a cattle gate and then about a hundred metres further on a small sign pointed right to the entrance to Naukluft. The campsite is 10km further on into the park along a small narrow gravel track. You can’t see where it winds to from the road and it’s not long before you can’t see the road from the track. It follows a windy route that leads between the folds of the hills and meanders deeper into the territory beyond.

The camp office was a small hut that had a phone connection but didn’t look as if it had electricity. No-one was around when we got there but soon people appeared from further up the valley and came to check us in and take our park fees. The campsite itself was another few kilometres further on into the park, a very quite and isolated spot. You had to cross the river to get to it and the sites were then lined up along side the river bank. We toured the site looking for the best available spot, mainly because none of the signs were for site 8 which is the one they had told us to use. After having gone back to the camp office to get a different site we then found site 8!

Farmer Stef

It was right along the river and next to a French family who were travelling in their campervan. It was no bigger than a Ford Transit van although the roof had been raised and there was Mum, Dad and a couple of kids. The licence plates were French so they must have travelled overland to get here. The Mum was sitting quietly with one of the children engrossed in what looked like a school lesson.

Having spent the last few days in a hotel I found it hard to adjust back to being in the tent/truck. Soon I was again dirty and covered in dust, which seems to be a consistent state of being for me. It’s not helped by the fact that I can stand up in the back of the truck whereas Stef can’t so I seem to spend a fair proportion of my day crawling around getting stuff out of the back and putting in back in again. I wouldn’t mind so much but the dust dries my skin out and makes me very itchy. Needless to say I wasn’t in the best of moods and I just wanted to get clean, be away from dust and stop itching.

Stef on the other hand was in a totally different frame of mind. He found the whole thing very romantic and couldn’t understand why I didn’t share his point of view. The moon rose gently as we cooked up some tea (mince with a tin of butternut squash stew which was very tasty and quick to cook). It was almost full and was a very bright white globe rising in the sky. The stars were out as well, as were the baboons who we could hear on the other side of the river. They are a problem at this campsite as the come scavenging for food and Stef was very twitchy throughout dinner thinking they were about to come up to our site. They didn’t.

We were soon tucked up in bed listened to the baboons and the tinkling of the river as it meandered along beneath us.

Morning, not totally awake yet

We had had a baboon free night but Stef met a man from one of the other sites this morning and the baboons had been a problem for them. What they had done we are not really sure but Stef was given the feeling that it was pretty bad. The main reason people come here is to go walking in the hills. There are two separate trails, one 10km the other 17km, which lead you up the side of the mountain and on to the plateau above. Neither of us was really in the mood for walking so we decided to head on to Sesriem instead.

At the camp office they called ahead to see if Sesriem had availability which they did but we were told it would on be on their overflow site. We were able to transfer the extra night we had planned to spend at Naukluft to Sesriem and we were soon on our way. The road out of the park came and went and we turned right back onto the D854 down to Sesriem. It was a relatively short journey but on the way we passed a couple of nice looking lodges, again making me want to ditch the tent in favour of being clean and dust free.

Our welcome at Sesriem was a bit beyond belief. Rather than welcoming us to this national park, the parks admin woman gave me a grilling. She was really rude in the way she spoke to me growling as she asked why we had changed our booking and barking at me that we had wasted money as we couldn’t get a refund on our park entrance fees. It wouldn’t have achieved a huge amount but I felt like barking back and using a popular expletive of a four letter word followed by “off”. Instead I just kept calm, let her get on with it and walked out without saying thank you.

We were not in a proper campsite but were also not really on the overflow site which is a large open field by the entrance. The proper sites all have a large area enclosed by a low stone wall with space for a couple of cars and a campfire. Our spot was simply under the trees next to the ablutions block with a few stones in the sand for a campfire. Having checked it out it was still early enough for us to go out and about in the afternoon so we headed down into the next national park, renowned for its sand dunes.

The dunes were amazing. The sand here is red and the light plays off the dunes producing warm glows of reds, ochres and golden yellows. We stopped at Dune 45 and went for a walk up the ridge of the dune. I was in my sandals and soon had to turn back because the heat of the sand was burning my feet. Stef carried on up further but had much more fun bounding down the dune than he had climbing up it.

Enormous red dunes of the Namib desert

A road has been laid through this part of the park which leads down to the main attractions, Sossusvlei and Dead Vlei. Dunes line the road one either side creating on huge row of sandcastles all melding and merging in with each other. You could see the wind whipping the tops of the dunes as we went. It is about a 60km drive from the main park camp to the vlei’s. Normal cars can only go so far and from there a 4x4 shuttle service takes you the final few kilometres. No knowing what the road would be like, and not really wanting to get stuck in sand without knowing how to get out again, we decided to take the shuttle service. We had to wait until they could fill up the car, which only took a few minutes as a German tour group arrived not long after us.

It was a sandy track, deep sand in places, for those last few kilometres. Our driver dropped us at the car park for the Dead Vlei, telling us how to get there and saying that he would pick us up again in about an hour and a half at Sossusvlei. Without the benefit of aircon or the wind created by the 4x4 we soon began to feel the relentless heat of the sun as there was no shade on the walk to the vlei. We again bumped into the South African couple who we first met in Twyfelfontein. The chap was bounding up the dunes and was soon walking along a ridge. The lady was more cautious, having only recently come out of a plaster cast on her leg.

The chap seemed to be able to see the way from the top so we followed his instructions. This turned out to be a dodgy move as he led us up a very high dune before we realised we weren’t really going in the direction we wanted to. From the height we reached we could just see over a further dune that looked more like a dam. Beyond that was the flat expanse of the vlei. We slithered our way back down the dune, walked across a dried out pan and then made our way up the dam like dune to reach the vlei.

If you wanted to make a film that was based in the future when the world had almost run out of water this would be a potential candidate for the set. In the wet season the vlei is probably full but today it was bone dry. The gnarled and shrivelled trunks of trees stuck up from the ground looking as if they had been burnt. Beneath our feet, the ground shifted from hot sand that was hard to walk on to a solid and firmly dried out mud flat with splits and cracks a centimetre or so deep. There was a very other worldly feel to the place and had it not been for the South African couple we could have been the last people on earth.

This illusion was soon shattered. As we made our way back to the road a backpacker style tour group was coming the other way, obviously short on time to make it to the vlei and back again based on the speed with which they were walking. Fortunately for us, the 4x4 chap who was picking us up had seen us coming and stopped to wait for us on the road before carrying on round to Sossusvlei to pick up the Germans. He was a very welcome sight. Walking across the sand, and especially up the sand dunes, was not easy going and with the sun beating down on us too it was also very hot work.

Chilled at Dead Vlei

We made our way back to the campsite, parked in our very sandy spot and Stef went to work getting a fire lit. There was no hope really of having a braai so we cooked our steaks on the gas stove, no meant feat because it was very windy and we had to stand stratigically placed so that the stove didn’t blow out. The Germans that we’d shared a 4x4 with at the vlei were in the site next to us but frustratingly they chose to walk through our site to get to the washrooms rather than walking around the outside. It gave Stef a few minutes of pleasure though as he rearranged our site to block as much of their direct route as possible.

They were quite a large group, 23 people in all, and were staving in a Rollende Hotel. We had seen one of these before, I think in South America. During the day they all travel in a high sided coach which pulls the hotel behind it. The hotel is little more than 8 rows of triple height bunk beds which are divided so that each bed is its own little cubby hole. To me it seems like a claustrophobic way to spend a night, particular as some of the nights here have been very hot. A kitchen folds out of the back and a canopy rolls down and out to provide a bit more private space. Amazingly there was a real mix of ages travelling this way, one lady was over 80 years old. They all seemed to be enjoying themselves and there was a pretty convivial atmosphere.

We had planned to spend this evening starting to think about our next country, South Africa, but the combination of hot sand, rude women at reception, a steak dinner washed down with a bit of wine took its toll. Instead we spent the evening playing gin rummy before sleep got the better of us and we headed for bed.

Incredible shot, capturing a rainbow over Dune 45 - yes, a rainbow, in the desert!
20060414_P_0228 adj
Sossusvlei, filled with a thin layer of water
Filming "The Namibian Job" maybe?

At 3:30 this morning I was woken by Stef digging me in the ribs and saying “what time is it?” At 5:15 he did it again but this time we had the shall we or shan’t we conversation about getting up to see the sunrise on the dunes. We were already a bit late to see the best of it but decided to give it a go so we flung on clothes, packed up the tent and set off. Although lots of people from the campsite had already left the queue was building to get into the park itself so we knew we were still ahead of the game compared to many.

Where yesterday the dunes were already lit up in beautiful warm colours this morning they almost shimmered in the rising sunlight. We stopped a couple of times to go “ooh”, at one time seeing in the distance the hot air balloons taking off. We had wanted to do a morning balloon flight over the dunes but decided that the US$250 price tag per person was a bit beyond our budget for an hour’s flight, even with the champagne breakfast thrown in.

We had planned to stop at Dune 45 for breakfast but when we got there it was already busy with backpacker tour groups. Along the ridge of the dune you could make out the dark silhouette of people walking up to the top. What they didn’t see though was the beautiful rainbow that was arching out of the top of the dune. We were in the lucky position of being able to look one way and see the sun rising and the other way to see the moon setting. Fantastic. One shot we’ve got shows a purpley sun rising above the dunes with a layer of mist still hugging the ground and I think it is superb.

As with yesterday we carried on down to Sossusvlei but this time Stef drove he $x4 bit himself. Having seen it yesterday it seemed to just be a sandy bit of road and it was not driving up and down sand dunes which is what we had been wary about. En route we saw some familiar faces, the father and a couple of the children from the French family we had seen at Naukluft. They had either got here before the 4x4 started to run their shuttle service or they felt that the £9 price tag per person was too high. With no space inside for them to sit I rearranged all our stuff in the back of the truck to create space and seats for them and they had to sit enclosed in the canopy of our truck. They didn’t seem to mind and were just happy to be getting a lift.

We dropped them at the Dead Vlei where the Mum was waiting with the other kids and I was amazed to see there were four kids in total as I had only seen three at Naukluft. We had though we’d seen them walking up dune 45 yesterday but ruled it out on the basis of too many kids but it was them after all. They must have things incredibly well organised in their motor home as there can barely be enough space for them all. It was just as well that most of them were little!

When we look back next year on Good Friday and remember what we were doing this year I think I will still be amazed that by 7:45 in the morning I was climbing up the sand dune surrounding the Sossusvlei. Even at this time of day it was already getting hot but walking with one side in the sun and one side in the shade balanced the heat out and it was not too bad. My legs soon started complaining though that I was again walking uphill on sand. I find it really hard going. So many people come up here that in some places it is almost as if someone has carved steps in the sand. It deceptive though because just as you start to get used to walking on compacted sand you hit and soft bit again.

Looking down to the right it didn’t feel as if we had climbed very far up but looking to the left was a different matter. The dune must have been about 100m above the height of the vlei. I had to keep my eyes fixed firmly on the ridge of the dune because if I didn’t I found that I started to slip down the side, not something that I really wanted to do. It was worth the walk because from the top we could also see across to the Dead Vlei that we had walked to yesterday.

There was a short steep section leading down which looked pretty hairy to cross but it simply meant that you sank into the sand up to your ankles with each step. I tried to retrieve the water bottle Stef had dropped as he jumped down this part but the closer I got to it the more it slid away from me so I gave up. Unusually for this time of year the vlei still had water, another sign of the higher than average rainfall this year. It was a very milky colour and I suppose it must have been full of minerals. A small colourful bug on the side of the vlei looked like it had got itself stuck upside down at the water’s edge so I turned it over only to see it flip itself back again.

Back at the car park we pondered what to do next. We had booked into the Sesriem campsite for two nights but because we had only stayed at Naukluft for one night we gad already spent one night there. Having already seen Dune 45, Dead Vlei and Sossusvlei we had covered the major attractions of this area although we could, of course, keep coming back to see them at different times of the day. If it wasn’t a 60km drive from the campsite to the vlei we may have done that but pondering options we decided to push on and head for Luderitz further south. We had initially planned to go there but people had told us there wasn’t’ really anything much there which is why we had changed our plans. Only time will tell.

As we left the vlei the road there had changed significantly. What had been firm cool sand on our way down was now, two hours later, already getting soft in the heat of the day. Ahead of us we saw a little queue of traffic and rather than waiting behind them Stef took off on a less well travelled track. The queue was caused by one chap who had got his rear wheel stuck in the sand. People had got out of the 4x4 shuttles to help them out and they were soon set free. A couple of times we ground to a halt with a judder as we hit some soft sand but Stef navigated us safely through without us getting stuck.

We got back to the camp office, but this time a different lady was on duty for the campsite and rather than having a rude exchange she quite happily changed our booking for the Luderitz campsite. One of the benefits of using the NWR sites is that they can easily transfer bookings from one campsite to another as long as there is availability. We filled up with petrol, Stef chatting briefly to a couple of chaps who take an old mini out on the dunes and find it fares better than a 4x4, spent about 15 minutes trying to get coffee for the flask and hit the road. It is a pretty long drive down to Luderitz and by the time we left it was already 11:00am so we knew we didn’t really have much time to spare to get there before it got dark.

Yet again we found ourselves driving for long stretches through vast open valleys with no other traffic in sight. It’s great to have the road to yourself but I think we both also quietly had our fingers crossed that we wouldn’t get a puncture or have any other problems because we’d be well and truly stuck. There’s no mobile reception in most of these open areas so we wouldn’t even be able to call for help.

Most of the journey down to Luderitz was on gravel roads. We tended to swap over about every hour because it is tiring driving. As luck would have it I got the worst stretch driving through very sandy roads where you could feel the truck skittering (is that a word?) about on the road. If it wasn’t sandy it was very lumpy so in all I was very glad when that stint came to an end. The landscape around us gradually changed from sand dunes to grassy land with low rocks and then to bigger rocky valleys. River beds crossed our route continually, some small others very wide, some if good condition, others almost washed away.

At one point a line of stones on the road indicated it was closed ahead, a problem for us as it would have meant a long detour that we didn’t have time to do. We crawled up to take a look. It was another river crossing but here the road had been totally washed away. There were plenty of car tracks showing that people were still getting across and I was mighty glad that it was Stef driving not me. There was very deep soft sand at the bottom but we got across without a problem. A few kilometres further down the road we saw people driving to that crossing in a normal car. We definitely needed the benefit of the 4x4 so hopefully they made it ok.

Finally we reached the end of the C13 and made it onto a tarmac road, the first one that we’ve seen in many days. Having had our fill of gravel for quite a while we both cheered at the sight of the tarmac. We turned off right onto the B4 with only another 125km to go to get to Luderitz. Time was tight but as long as we didn’t stop for sights too often on the way we would still make it in daylight. We drove past the turn off to go and see the wild horses which we’ll stop to see on the way back, but we did pull off to go and look at the old abandoned railway station at Garug. The tracks are all a bit wonky and out of line and it looks as if no trains have come this was for many a year.

Old railway line to Luderitz

As we approached Luderitz the sand dunes came back into sight lining the road either side. The road can get blocked by drifting sand but fortunately for us it was clear with the exception of one small patch which was nothing compared to the roads we’ve been travelling on. We passed a deserted village off to the side of the road on a dune which we think is the old diamond mining town of Kolmanskop. A short while later we were on the outskirts of Luderitz. We found the campsite which is on a small spit of land by the docks. It again brought us back to the Atlantic and as with Terrace Bay further north it was a pretty windy bit of coast.

Quite a few of the sites were already occupied so we toured around the empty ones trying to find one with shelter but to no avail. Instead we picked a spot right by the wall looking out to sea which gave us great views but not much shelter at all. After a long day’s drive neither of us felt like cooking so we headed back into town to try and find somewhere to eat. Rumors Grill and Pizzeria at the Krupps hotel seemed to be the only place open but it looked welcoming and in we went.

It was a pretty busy place which again made me think it was the only place open. There was just one lady working in the restaurant tonight and she was absolutely rushed off her feet. I suspect the same was true in the kitchen because food was slow coming out. What we had hoped would be a quick dinner ended up taking a couple of hours but the food was tasty and it was good to be somewhere warm and out of the wind. We headed back to camp, put up the tent and sat and watched the stars for a while before crashing out.