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Southern Namibia: epic, wild and unforgettable

Africa is a diverse and intriguing continent. Of all it’s countries, Namibia has to be one of the most beautiful and the most unique. From the spotless Bavarian-style town of Swakopmund to the majestic beauty and solitude of the Sossusvlei and onwards to the quaint windswept town of Lüderitz and the mysterious settlement of Kolmanskop, we had one of our best road trips ever.

We flew to Walvis Bay from Johannesburg, picked up our hire car and set off for the beach town of Swakopmund.

Walvis Bay’s flamingo colony
Walvis Bay is known for hosting a population of approximately 35,000 lesser and greater flamingos, as well as some pelicans. You can’t miss them as you drive along the coast. We stopped for quite some time while we photographed this scintillating cloud of pink, twisting and turning in the lagoon, skimming for plankton.

Between the coastal towns of Swakopmund and Walvis Bay, you will also pass the highest dune in the area, known as Dune 7 for its distance from Swakop. The dune is about 383 metres high from the base and 570 metres above sea level.

A touch of German culture in Swakopmund
Sandwiched between the cool winds of the wild Atlantic Ocean and the blazing heat of one of the oldest deserts in the world, its not surprising that Swakopmund is often blanketed in dense fog in the early mornings. Arriving in this pretty seaside town, you could be forgiven for thinking that you were somewhere in Germany.

The town was founded by Germans back in 1892, and the architecture featuring reinforced stone arches and exposed timber, reflects this history. Even the street names are still in German. The restaurants in the town centre offer great beer, wurst and eisbein and plenty of strudel and good coffee. Everyone seems to speak either German or Afrikaans, although English has been the official language since independence in 1990.

Our friendly B ’n B hosts, booked a lovely restaurant for us in the town centre where we feasted on eisbein with sauerkraut and schnitzel with spätzel, washed down with German weiß-bier.

Quad-biking and dune-boarding in the desert

One of the most exciting activities to take part in is quad biking on the dunes just outside Swakopmund. You can access a part of the dunes on quads that not even 4×4’s can reach. We chose a guided tour offering a combination of quad biking and sandboarding. We started off cautiously following the guide over the dunes, gaining confidence as we became more familiar with our bikes and the terrain. It didn’t take long before we were confidently zooming up and over the sand dunes, grinning as we went. I was scared of rolling my bike, so was super cautious on some of the steep curves that climbed above some dizzying depths. Our guide took us on a wonderful journey, stopping to point out interesting desert creatures. A highlight was sweeping up and over an extremely high dune to suddenly come face to face with the rolling Atlantic Ocean far below and into the distance.

We made our way to increasingly higher dunes and eventually stopped to prepare for a bout of dune boarding. This involves lying down on a flexible board, the underside of which we had to polish to a smooth shine. And then you take it in turns to be launched over the edge, shrieking in delight all the way down, or too petrified to squeak (possibly me). I found it absolutely terrifying being tossed over the crest of a ridiculously steep and almost endless dune, purportedly offering perfect conditions for dune boarding. I hung onto the instruction to keep the front of the board curved upward to ensure it didn’t dig into the sand causing me to flip. 😳  

I may have forgotten the advice to use my feet as an anchor to slow me down when needed. It’s so frightening and so fast, that the exhilaration eliminates any clear thinking. Before you know it you are flying down the slope picking up so much speed that you skim over bumps and are slightly air-borne in places. Then just like that you ski to a stop, tumbling gently into the warm sand and suddenly aware of the sand burns acquired on your forearms. Oh yes, the instructor did say to keep your limbs off the ground at all times. The hardest part is walking back up the enormous dune. It’s literally a case of one step forward, slide two back, pausing en route to watch other adventurers fly past you.

Thoroughly exhausted and covered in sand in every orifice, we wound our way back across the dunes to the base, pausing to watch a group of camel trekkers heading home too.

Dinner was a delight at Pier 45. A great restaurant located at the very end of a long wave battered pier that leads far out to sea.

The ultimate road trip from Swakopmund to Sossusvlei
The drive from Swakop to Sossusvlei meanders in and out of Africa’s largest conservation area, the Namib-Naukluft National Park. It encompasses desert and mountains and is Namibia’s greatest natural wonder. Far from featureless, the desert is washed with ever-changing colours – yellow grasses, orange sand, pink mountains – all muting to mauves and charcoals as the shadows lengthen.

Sometimes we stopped to take pictures in the middle of the long, straight, red, dusty roads surrounded by mountains, silvery swathes of grassy plains punctuated with terracotta dunes. We hardly saw another car. Just the occasional quiver tree, an oryx or two. And complete silence.

We stopped to acknowledge the crossing of the Tropic of Capricorn which is the southernmost latitude that experiences the sun directly overhead at noon. From here southwards the sun appears at less than a 90˚ angle. 

A five and half hour drive ended up taking seven with all the compulsory pauses to capture the breathtaking views.

Apple pie in Solitaire
Located in the middle of the desert is the small settlement of Solitaire. Almost every traveler in Namibia makes a stop at this watering hole, located at the crossroads of C14 and C24, two major routes connecting Walvis Bay and the Sossusvlei section of the Namib-Naukluft National Park.

Solitaire has the only gas station for miles; plus a motor repair shop, post office, bakery, and small general store. Surrounding the village are the decrepit ruins of old cars, each no doubt having a fascinating story to share. We’d heard about Moose’s famous apple strudel and it didn’t disappoint as it emerged warm from the oven, paired with a cup of coffee, delicious despite the 30 degree heat.

Le Mirage Desert Lodge and Spa
A bit more driving and we came upon our gorgeous resort which blends into its environment: natural rock-hewn buildings open out onto the plains and dunes of the desert.

We spent some time walking around the camp, taking photos and having a refreshing swim before an intense quad bike tour with another couple and our guide. We were awed by the epic landscape of undulating apricot dunes, stretching to infinity. Our knowledgeable guide stopped regularly to show us the details in some of the amazing surroundings.

One of these were the Fairy Circles. It seems that no one is really certain as to how these interesting phenomena are created. Theories are that termites clear the vegetation in the area around their nests beneath the earth in order to trap rainwater below the surface. An alternative idea is that the circles are created by plants competing for water, using their root system to create underground reservoir pools. Either way, thought-provoking and mysterious.

We returned to the oasis of our beautiful lodge at sunset. After a delicious three-course dinner, we fell asleep to the vast sound of nothing.

The dunes of Sossusvlei
Venturing into Sossusvlei. Having endured arid or semi-arid conditions for roughly 55–80 million years, the Namib may be the oldest desert in the world. The unmissable thing with the Sossusvlei area is to see the sun rise over the spectacular ancient desert dunes which is incredible to experience.

This was the big photography adventure we’d been looking forward to. We woke up early and hightailed the 21 km to the gate of the park and joined the queue of vehicles. Access to the Sossusvlei area of the Namib-Naukluft National Park is from the Sesriem gate. From Sesriem, a 60 km tar road leads to Sossusvlei proper.

The majority of visitors make it to the gate as they open up at 5:15 a.m. and make a mad dash for Sossusvlei or Dune 45. Dune 45 is so called because it lies 45 km past Sesriem on the road to Sossusvlei. It is 80 meters high and it is composed of 5 million year old sands. The main draw is its accessibility. The road to the dune is paved and it has a parking lot at its base.

If timed properly it is possible to drive to and climb the dune to watch the sun come up over the Namib desert. If you cherish photography and arrive anytime between 8:30 and 4:00 you are wasting your time. The sand gets almost too hot to walk on and depending on the season you may be sweating before you exit the car.

When the sun crests over these giant mountains of sand they suddenly are on fire. The dunes go from a flat rust color to a deep red, while the shadows they cast become live, fascinating shapes. You have to see the sun rise over the desert at least once in your life. ☀️ We opted to return at sunset the next day, which was quieter and just as awesome, but we had to rush to get to the gate and out of the park on time, before it closes just after sunset.

The stark beauty of Deadvlei
Deadvlei is a dry clay pan, about 2 km from Sossusvlei. A notable feature of Deadvlei is that it used to be an oasis with several acacia trees. At some stage the river that watered the oasis changed its course. The blackened, dead acacia trees, stand in vivid contrast to the silvery white of the dry salty floor of the pan and against the intense ochre backdrop of the dunes. It’s a dramatic place.

Deadvlei, with its cracked mud puzzle pieces and eerie dead trees, was my favourite spot, especially for photos. You need a 4×4 to get to there, but if you don’t have one there is a spot to park and guides will take you in for a small fee. I would recommend getting to Sossusvlei at sunrise and to wander around the dunes and Deadvlei for a few hours. By noon you will be ready to leave as it is gets very hot.

The wild horses of Garub
Leaving our resort was hard, but we were excited for the next adventure on our road trip and we headed towards Lüderitz. We’d heard about the romantic feral herds of horses roaming the desert and were delighted to spot them congregated around a waterhole although quite far in the distance. Further on our drive we came across a few that were close to the side of the road.

They quickly approached us out of curiosity. We were amazed at how healthy they appeared given the harsh and arid environment. No one is certain of where these wild desert horses originated from, but apparently they now number close 150. The horses have adapted to their desert world and are said to able to go five days with little to no water.

We only passed a couple of cars on the entire drive to Lüderitz. We often stopped the car to take photos of the scenery and could not stop marvelling at the glorious, wonderful silence and endless horizons.

Lüderitz
A long weekend is a bad time to be in Luderitz, as everything is pretty much closed, making the town almost as deserted as neighboring Kolmanskop! I found this peculiar given that public holidays are when most people are free to travel and venture out to enjoy amenities that were now closed.

Like Swakop, this German town with its colonial-style landmarks is also nestled between the turbulent Atlantic Ocean and the massive sand dunes of the Namib desert.

The friendly hostess for our self-catering accommodation, made a telephone call and arranged photographic passes to be brought around in order for us to access Kolmanskop at dawn the following day. Another call and we had a bag of fresh oysters delivered to our rooms. An oyster-shucking tool is standard issue for any self-respecting Lüderitz kitchen. Delicious!

Dinner was recommended at ‘Barrels’, which specialized in simple, home cooking. It felt a bit ‘American frontier-movie’ walking into the restaurant – the locals stopped mid-drink to check out the strangers in town – but everyone was friendly and the potjie stew was tasty.

We took a scenic drive to Diaz Point approx 18km along from the town. It is a rocky, windy, picturesque place, where Bartolomeu Dias, believed to be the second European to reach Namibia, erected a cross in 1488.

The ghost town of Kolmanskop
10 kilometers inland of Luderitz is Kolmanskop. This was without a doubt, the highlight of the trip for me. We were up at dawn, cameras fully charged, ready to explore the abandoned town that was once a flourishing diamond district before the stones dried up and bigger diamonds were found at Oranjemund.

Kolmanskop must be one of the most photogenic places in Namibia and we spent hours walking around on our own, exploring the desolate houses, slowly but surely being taken over by the desert. It is a place that reaches deep inside you.

Read more about our experiences at Kolmanskop here.

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