Namibia… sun, sand and safaris
Clients Mike and Chris Simm journeyed to Namibia on a Cox & Kings group tour. They sent a blow-by-blow account of their time to friends and family…
Namibia is one of those ‘fortunate’ countries that benefited from the colonial powers drawing lines on a picture of Africa with the help of a ruler and little reference to tribal lands and boundaries. It was also one of the few originally owned by the Germans, although they were replaced by South Africa just short of a century ago – and the latter left in 1990 when the country achieved full independence. This has left it as a territory of some 850,000 sq km with only two million inhabitants, comprising the white population and some dozen indigenous tribes. The population density is therefore about 2.3 people per sq km, and given that many live in the major towns of Windhoek, Swakopmund and Walvis Bay, much of the land is pretty deserted. This leads to many spectacular views, both in terms of content and vastness of scale, which probably divide into three categories: the coastal sandscapes, the hills / mountains, and the (theoretical) arable lands.
We joined a group tour to drive round the country and assembled in the capital Windhoek, where, on arrival, we passed a number of roads named after what we assumed were local heroes: in particular, Sam Nujoma, the former leader of SWAPO and the country’s first president, fell into this category. We carried out a brief inspection of parts of the town, including a new museum, before reaching our hotel.
After a meal and a good night’s sleep, we set off for the Namib-Naukluft desert – the day was mainly a drive through a fairly flat landscape, dotted with scrawny trees, stunted bushes and small clumps of yellowed grass. A fair proportion of this land is used for farming, either for crops or for cattle or sheep, but some Namibians have come to believe that their wildlife is a resource to be nourished and cherished (although sadly others look on it as dinner!) and have set up game farms. We saw some animals during the day, but mainly of the common or garden variety familiar at home, though we were given a supercilious glare by a solitary ostrich, and came across a sociable weaver bird. The weaver builds little straw-like nests that hang down from trees, but this variety builds avian apartment blocks for up to a hundred pairs – and on the odd occasion the weight becomes too much for the branch to which it is attached, the whole caboodle crashes to the ground!
We stayed overnight (for some bizarre reason in the honeymoon suite, but there’s no point in grumbling about it!) at Moon Mountain Lodge – a truly spectacular setting, up a mountainside with a view across miles of desert to distant hills.
Our following day’s outing was planned to arrive at the entrance to the national park at sunrise, requiring a pre-dawn breakfast and a half-hour drive to be in position on time. The reason for the early kick-off was to see the spectacular range of sand dunes as the sun rose and to observe the play of light across them. The east-facing slopes were almost a terracotta colour, in stark contrast to the black shadow of the wind-carved hollows on the western side. The dunes vary in height, but the largest of them in the park rises to 360 metres, and some others aren’t too far behind. On the way in we passed what are known as ‘fairy circles’ – basically a Namibian version of crop circles, featuring dry brown circles inside a fertile ring: while there is no rational explanation for them, at least aliens are not included in the options!
We then moved on to Sossusvlei where, following a drive in a 4x4, we were offered the opportunity to climb a 140-metre sand dune. It is pleasing to report that three of our group made it to the top – but not, sadly, including Chris or I, although to be fair, Chris made it to about half way. I, on the other hand, set off, but soon, having noted that I was climbing up a 3ft wide ridge and doing a ‘two steps forward, one step back’ routine in very soft sand and that the sand sloped away quite steeply to either side, decided that in view of my occasional ambulatory inadequacies, discretion was the better part of stupidity, and turned back!
In the afternoon we moved on to Sesriem Canyon, which contains some pretty impressive rock formations created by the passage of water in the past few million years. We walked to the bottom and back, and whilst it would be best suited to the younger element and those possessed of the agility of a mountain goat, we managed to stumble our way along and down without coming a cropper! We then returned to Moon Mountain, and again watched the sun setting in the west as the moon rose in the east.
The following day we drove to the town of Swakopmund; being on the coast it had a climate generally less sunny and cooler than inland and the desert. En route we crossed the Tropic of Capricorn and called in briefly at Walvis Bay to inspect flamingoes. These had originally arranged themselves into two groups, but over time the splinter group transferred itself back to the main body, giving us a final view of a large pink mass.
The following day was described as ‘at leisure’. One of the entertainments on offer when we booked was a scenic flight along the Skeleton Coast and, in an obvious moment of weakness, given my reluctance to get into little planes unless absolutely necessary, I agreed to go on a flight with Chris. The day dawned a uniform grey, but we were collected a little behind schedule and driven to the airport – in reality an earth strip, from which we took off in a Cessna 210 (basically a six-seater, first built in 1957 and discontinued in 1985 – this is post-facto knowledge!). I grilled the pilot on his flying skills and experience (!) and eventually agreed to go – we headed inland and soon emerged from the gloom into bright sunlight, and flew across an area called the moon landscape, past the Gross and Klein Spitzkoppe (two massive granite mounds sticking up out of the desert) and past the Brandberg (the country’s highest point at about 2,600 metres) before turning back towards the coast and over the Damara Granites, rock formations from millions of years ago created by volcanic and tectonic forces. These rocks are stratified in different colours and rather resemble the sort of sand patterns sold in little bottles to gullible tourists at the seaside. Having reached the coast, we turned south and flew over the wreck of the good ship Zeila, which broke its moorings in Walvis Bay one stormy night and drifted about 60km or so north before beaching itself – it now functions as a tourist attraction and perch for seabirds. We also flew past the seal colony at Cape Cross (sadly local aviation laws forbid buzzing them at low altitude!) and back to base. We then spent the afternoon in the local historical museum, which proved strangely interesting, and inspected the world’s largest quartz crystal.
After this day off we hit the road again, heading for Damaraland, but via the seal colony – ah… the joy of the well-remembered pong of several thousand seals, not to mention the cacophony of barks, bleats and honks that constitute their communications system! We also noted on the way down to the seals a commemorative stone that, inter alia, included the following: ‘The brilliant far-sighted King John II of Portugal ordered Diago Cão to discover this land…’ I leave it to you to identify the basic flaw in this line!
Damaraland is also the homeland of the Himba people, a semi-nomadic tribe who are noteworthy for covering themselves with a cosmetic paste of butterfat and ochre, perfumed with a local shrub, which acts as a cleansing agent.
Before heading to our accommodation we visited the Twyfelfontein rock carvings – basically the product of a stone age Banksy – the majority depict animals, and some local features (eg waterholes) and are thought to be guides for those who come behind, although another interpretation is that they are an element in shamanistic rituals. The climb around these carvings was yet another designed for those with a greater level of agility than is natural at my time of life, but we managed!
The next day was to be spent in pursuit of the black rhino and the desert elephant, so after another dawn rising we clambered into our all-terrain vehicle (called Mossi) and set out in search of the former. To give the name ‘track’ to the course we followed would be to accord to it a definition unsupported by the reality – it was a bit like vehicular orienteering…. Eventually we came across a clue, which, after forensic analysis, was declared to be evidence of the recent passage of our target. Our guide and tracker therefore set off across the landscape following the trail, and, insofar as we could ever have been described as being on-road, we went off it. As the chase went on, we found it necessary to go off-off-road, and in due course and in response to frantic gesticulations from our guides, off-off-off-road. Shortly thereafter, Mossi decided it could go no further and we had to disembark and continue on foot, finishing up well strung-out across the hilly ground. Finally our quarry came into view: a 7-year-old male called Emile (a bit mimsy for 1,500kg of testosterone-fuelled teenager, in rhino lifespan terms). We watched from a respectful distance as he ambled about and were treated to a final vision of his rear elevation as he disappeared from view.
On the way back, Mossi decided to exact revenge for its earlier maltreatment and had a puncture – leading to a 15-minute delay in getting to lunch – after which we went after desert elephants. This was a considerably easier task since shortly after setting out we met a bunch of travellers who were able to give us their location. It was a mixed group, including several youngsters (although it’s difficult to regard something which weighs about 300kg as tiny and ‘sweet’) and the reduction in size compared to normal elephants was striking. We watched the group ambling about and feeding quite close to our vehicle for some considerable time before returning to base.
Given the plethora of stars in the night sky, we had decided to go on a stargazing expedition after dinner, and set off again in the company of Siggi (Austrian-born but a 48-year resident of Namibia). We saw the Southern Cross, Mars and Saturn, as well as the six constellations of the astrological dozen visible at this time of year.
Our next step was to drive to Etosha National Park for some wildlife viewing (we went via the Petrified Forest – not a forest as we know it but an area containing wood that, over the preceding 260-280 million years, had turned to stone). The park is unlike any I have ever seen before – not the verdant landscape of, say, the Masai Mara, but a palette of grey / white, brown, black and yellow-y green, some parts of which are practically barren and others teeming with wildlife and vegetation. We did not see anything greatly spectacular in our first outing, but came across several varieties of deer, zebras, giraffes, wildebeest, jackals, vultures and, distantly on the edge of the Etosha Pan, lions and ostriches.
The following morning in the early stages of our outing, we sighted a family group of rhinos. Shortly thereafter, we happened on a pair of lionesses enjoying a leisurely breakfast (a wildebeest), while 10 or so jackals circled them at a respectful distance. Once the meal was over, the lionesses sauntered off without a care in the world and the jackals moved in for the remnants (and briefly out again when one of the lionesses turned back!). We pressed on and soon saw a pair of elephants crossing our path, eventually arriving at a waterhole positively teeming with wildlife. We spotted many varieties of deer including the Namibian national animal, the oryx (you might have thought they’d treat it with a bit of respect, but it figured on practically every dinner menu in one form or another), ostriches, zebras and elephants. The waterhole was not filled with crystal clear liquid, but rather a sludgy limpid mud – when the elephants chucked it over themselves, as they are prone to do, they turned a fetching light grey. During this stop we also sighted a single elephant approaching in the distance: a bull, with one broken tusk, coming towards us very slowly, with a stately gait – I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything which so clearly showed the majesty and dignity of the species.
The next day was the last before the group split for home, or for other extensions to the tour. In the morning we visited the worthwhile cause of the Cheetah Conservation Fund, and then moved on to Erindi Private Reserve for a final burst of the wild. The highlights included a group of lions, a pair of cheetahs, and a solitary rhino in the gathering gloom, but the best was in fact yet to come. There was a floodlit waterhole next to the restaurant at our accommodation and after dinner a group of some dozen elephants showed up: it was fascinating to watch the interplay between the various members of the group, in particular what seemed to be a young male being forced out of the group by the matriarch – it was pushed well away, but did sneak back later without any reaction from the matriarch, so I guess it must have been the elephant’s version of the naughty step! A fitting experience to end the expedition…
And so we moved on to Botswana!
Read the blog about Mike and Chris' experience in Botswana >
Mike and Chris Simm travelled on the Cox & Kings group tour Namibia: Untouched Wilderness
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Most images in this article are courtesy of Chris Simm.