After arriving rather late at the Windhoek airport, our first night was spent at the Villa Verdi, a lovely guest house in Windhoek. We were provided with a simple breakfast and coffee on a covered porch overlooking the garden, after which we headed out for Etosha National Park, a several hour drive north of Windhoek. Etosha means “great white place”. It is that. The park is dominated by a large salt pan (natural depression in the ground) formed by a dry lake bed. When you are out on the pan, having taken the three-kilometer road to the lookout, the sand takes on a greenish tint. Driving by it in the distance it appears white and beach like. You are almost sure you have reached the ocean.
You start to wonder where the water is. Grass lands are sparse in the park. We marveled that animals were able to survive here at all. We spent two nights in the park, at a different lodge each night, and drove the twisty side roads wherever possible. We would go miles for extended periods without viewing even a bird. Then we'd come upon a watering hole or a grazing area filled with the archetypal African scene of grazing kudu, zebra, hartbeast, giraffe, etc.
The first lodge we stayed in, Mokuti Lodge, provided us with a spacious two-bedroom bungalow, complete with kitchen and barbeque area (neither of which we were inclined to use, preferring the ease of a large buffet). There are no ATMs in the park, but they take credit cards for almost everything you might need. After dinner we walked out to the watering hole, separated from us by a few yards and a fence, where we watched elephants, jackals, giraffe, and various antelope quench their thirst.
The second lodge, Halali, was less luxurious, albeit quite nice (especially relative to my living quarters for the past three years), but it was located in a dry, parched area where the sun pounded the ground mercilessly. Moving about in the daytime was cumbersome. We retreated to the air conditioned interior of the car and spent the day on back roads. We came upon one small waterhole unexpectedly, where we were suddenly within yards of a single robust female lion hunched over and taking her fill. I got a little nervous being that close to a large predator with an open window between us, but she was not the least bit interested, barely acknowledging our presence before taking her fill and slowly moving away. We drove out to the “ghost tree forest”, one of our favorite spots in the park.
Ghost trees are alien looking trees with misshapen and bulbous trunks that grow in northeastern Africa, Madagascar and India. We saw quite a number of them knocked over on their sides, their short roots exposed, like bloated tipped cows. In the evening we went out to the view the waterhole at the lodge, a smaller version than the night before, but set high in a nicely laid out rocky area a bit further away from the animals. The night was dark. We watched as a large group of rhinos lumbered in, hearing them before we actually saw them. The viewing area was crowded and relatively hushed, quiet enough to hear the butting of heads between two large rhinos. A small African Wildcat slinked its way to the water’s edge, although it was spied by one of the large rhinos who chased it away. A group of sinister looking hyenas arrived like evil shadows on the periphery of the waterhole, edging up to drink after the rhinos had disappeared.
On the third day we took a long drive to Swakopmund, a seaside resort on the Atlantic Coast. Leaving the park, we were lucky to come upon a pride of seven lions lounging off the side of the road. We arrived in Swakopmund to find a beautiful, modern little town heavily influenced by European design, sitting off a palm lined, gorgeous blue ocean. In all the towns we passed through and visited, it was difficult to get a sense that we were still in Africa. Namibia was colonized by the Germans; European influence predominates.
The Brigadoon is a small and sweet guest house, a block from the beach. Breakfast is delivered to the patio outside your room at a time predetermined by you. There is light tapping on your door to let you know the meal has arrived. You start with cold items, cereals and breads, to give you time to wake up and get settled before the eggs arrive. What it lacks in ocean view, the Brigadoon makes up for in charm and top notch service.
The drive to the dunes at Sossusvlei is a long, empty desert. On the way to the turnoff from town, you come upon majestic red dunes abutting the ocean. The view is breathtaking – blue sky and sea, rust colored dunes, picture postcard perfect, which is nice because for miles and miles afterwards, all you get is flat dusty desert with hardly another car in sight. At some point you leave the paved road, however, the dirt road is wide and tightly packed. We lost no speed from the transition. All the lodges near the gate to Sossusvlei Park fill early during the month of October; we had to settle for Solitaire Country Lodge about a 90-minute drive north of the park. In one of the brochures we read, the town of Solitaire was described as “mystical". In reality, the town consists of little more than a gas station, a store and lodge that together, resemble something out of a B Grade Western film, but in a good way.
We rolled out of bed early to arrive at the Sossuvlei gate in time to be met by Namib Sky Balloon Safaris for our early morning balloon ride over the desert. This was a first for both of us. Although a little pricey at USD 400 each, the panoramic view as we drifted along high above the hills was worth the expense. The brochures show the balloons floating over the red dunes, but we did not reach the dunes, which we could see in the distance. Floating over mountains surrounded by early morning mist was sufficiently ethereal. After a scrumptious meal laid out on tables in the desert by the balloon trip organizers, the dunes were only a short drive away.
The dunes of Sossuvlei are everything the books and postcards depict – massive and burn bright red against a cloudless blue sky. It was like being transported back to the Sahara desert in southern Morocco, that mystical magical vastness which leaves one inclined to believe in something larger than oneself. At the car park for two-wheel drives, several kilometers from the largest dunes, we hopped on one of the shuttle busses that take you out to an area where you can hike around and climb dunes, if you are so inclined. We hiked out to an area called Deadvlei, a small copse of petrified trees left to die when the river changed its course. It was an eerie place perfectly suited for science fiction scenarios – dark dead trees rooted in a lake of dry white sand surrounded by the red dunes.
After a second night in mystic Solitaire, we headed back to Windhoek on a road that wound through hills sprouting high desert vegetation and loaded with wildlife. We had enough time in Windhoek to stop for a cappuccino in an outdoor café before going to Daan Viljoen Nature Reserve, a jewel of a surprise, outside of town where you can take a several kilometer hike among wildebeest, antelope, warthogs, zebra, giraffe, etc. We got to the airport in plenty of time for my evening flight out.
Six days is not enough time to see Namibia, nor is it sufficient to get a sense of the African cultures that gave rise to this diverse and extraordinary country. Unfortunately, a century of colonial rule followed by inclusion under South Africa apartheid, saw the widespread extermination of many indigenous tribes and the forced assimilation of others. In 1904, under German rule, an edict was declared that, “All form of tribal organisation must be stopped. Tribal groups deep in the bush which try to escape political supervision will not be tolerated. They would only serve to provide memories of tribal life and the days when the Africans owned the land."
Consequently, although a few small groups were able to seek refuge in the bush and survive in small numbers, outside of museums, it is difficult to see how this country was home to a large variety of different tribes with unique cultural practices and beliefs. The San bushmen, probably the best known of these groups, still exist but, with the exception of a cultural village that would have cost us 400 USD to visit, they are, according to media accounts, “marginalized and landless". Nonetheless, with its copper, zinc, lead, manganese, uranium and diamond mines, seaports and fishing and tourist attractions, Namibia seems prosperous relative to many African countries, with its emerging and larger black middle class – an encouraging trend and at a high price.
Read more of Alyson's travels at her blog.