All great road trips start with a wrong turn. At least that’s what I told myself when I picked the wrong road and ended up stuck in the frustrating crawl of Friday afternoon traffic on the N1. I was being thwarted in my escape on the great open road to our northern neighbour.
My boyfriend, Joe, and I needed a break, but instead of letting not much leave and not much money constrain us, we planned a road trip of epic proportions. As it turns out, there’s a lot you can experience on a budget over 10 days in southern Namibia. We hung out with wild desert horses, were attacked by birds, drank a lot of beer around campfires, went sandboarding, took a trip in a hot-air balloon over the desert, camped out under the stars, ate world-famous apple pie in a roadside oasis, drank Weissenbock among eisbein-eating Germans in a brauhaus, got lost in a ghost town engulfed by sand, and drove (a lot).
Namibia has some of the best gravel roads in the world, so we stuck to the back routes wherever possible to really do the road trip justice. After speeding through the dorp-and-spring-bloom-littered Northern Cape, and making an easy border crossing at Vioolsdrif, we turned off the highway and onto dirt.
Our introduction to Namibia was through the other-worldy lunar landscape of Ai-Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park, where a drive alongside the Orange River revealed nothing but quiver trees, a couple of dassies and rocks for miles. After setting up camp under a nest of sandwich-stealing sociable weavers in the peaceful Klein Aus Vista campsite, about 200 kilometres north of Ai-Ais, we went in search of the famous wild horses. The mission was short-lived because framed against the setting sun and plains, these beautiful creatures were congregated around a waterhole on the B4, just a short distance from where we’d camped. Like a scene from the movie Dances with Wolves it was just us, the wilderness, the sound of the wind in the grass and a herd of feral horses.
Namibia is one of the least populated countries in the world, a fact that’s easily believed when travelling on its back roads. You can sometimes drive for hours without passing another being, occasionally spotting a lone ostrich on the ochre horizon. The antidote to modern city living is a trip to this country – nowhere else have I experienced such a sense of peace.
Even in the towns you get a feeling of isolation. Lüderitz is eerily quiet on a Sunday, almost as deserted as Kolmanskop, the famous ghost town a few kilometres into the desert. Kolmanskop was established in pretty much the middle of nowhere in 1908 following the discovery of diamonds. Half a century ago, it was abandoned when bigger gems were found further south at Oranjemund. The shells of houses slowly being swallowed by desert sands are both creepy and photogenic. The bowling alley, dusty and grey, with bowling pins still at the end of the lanes, is a perfect setting for a ghostly horror movie. It made me think of the transience of life and impermanence of human existence in the face of nature … until a group of teenage tourists in a rusting bathtub started singing at the tops of their voices, putting an end to my philosophical moment.
The best drive on the 4 600-kilometre trip was from Lüderitz to NamibRand Nature Reserve on the D707 and C27 (D826), said to be among the most scenic roads in the country. Straight, red and dusty, the roads bordering the Namib-Naukluft National Park are surrounded by mountains and silvery swathes of grassy plains punctuated with terracotta dunes. And silence: we passed only a few cars on the three-hour drive.
One of the best ways to experience the Namib, purportedly the world’s oldest desert, is by walking. Tok Tokkie Trails offers two-night, three-day trails in the vast 172 000-hectare, private NamibRand Nature Reserve on the edge of Namib- Naukluft. Knowledgeable guide Mike Godfrey led us through golden grass, over apricot dunes and under giant sociable weavers’ nests, all the while talking about the Namib and its adapted flora and fauna. At one point, after climbing a dune, we looked out on a vista of grassy plains and endless desert, as Mike pointed out that this landscape hadn’t changed in millions of years.
While the walks were fascinating, going to sleep was the best part of the trail. We reached camp at dusk and were shown to an open-air bedroom: camp beds surrounded by paraffin lamps. After drinks and snacks, we sat down to a delicious threecourse meal prepared by a chef before tucking ourselves into thick bed rolls, warmed with hot-water bottles. I fell asleep staring at the stars and woke up just before dawn, watching the sky slowly lighten. I’ll go back to Namibia just to do that again.
The day after the hike, we shared the desert with throngs of tourists at Sossusvlei and Dead Vlei, two of Namibia’s most popular attractions. The crowds didn’t detract from the magic of a sea of dunes stretching to infinity, the incongruity of a vlei filled with water surrounded by miles of sand, cracked mud puzzle pieces (surprisingly cool to the touch) and stark spokes of dead trees cutting into an impossibly clear blue sky. Avoiding the masses at Dune 45, we climbed one of the others and sat up there alone for ages, shooting hundreds of photos, with only the sand-carrying wind disturbing the stillness.
A hot-air balloon ride over the Namib may be pricey, but it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience on many a bucket list (I’ve now ticked it off mine). Taking off at dawn, we watched the sun rise over Namib-Naukluft, drifted over dunes that look like playdough and startled ant-like gemsbok. You get a completely different perspective of the vastness of the desert landscape from the air, and when the gas burners are off, a contemplative hush of awe falls on the camera-wielding tourists in the basket. Upon landing after a magical flight, a lavish Champagne breakfast of zebra salami, smoked salmon and freshly baked croissants is served at the foot of undulating dunes.
We left Sossusvlei for Swakopmund and couldn’t drive past the desert oasis of Solitaire without sampling what is said to be the best apple pie in Namibia. Solitaire general dealer manager and baker extraordinaire Moose McGregor was doling out hefty slices of his pie, which were indeed scrumptious.
Driving into Swakopmund, with its quaint colonial buildings, felt like arriving in Germany in winter, especially as the temperature had dropped a good 20 degrees from Sossusvlei. The smell of the sea after days of baked desert air ignited a craving for seafood, so we splashed out on tapas, oysters and wine at Jetty 1905, a welcome respite from camping food. The restaurant is built on the end of the pier and you can (rather disconcertingly) peer down at the ocean waves through glass panels in the floor while eating tempura prawns. With the seafood craving still strong the following night, we headed to another of Swakop’s well-known eateries, The Tug, for a smorgasbord of sole, prawns and oysters.
You’re going to be labelled a wussy if you visit this area without trying one of the myriad adventure activities on offer. We chose sandboarding over skydiving, quad biking and horse riding, which turned out to be rather a lot of fun, despite the fact that I spent most of the time on my bum. The day ended with a couple of pints of Camelthorn Weissenbock microbrewery beer at Swakopmund Brauhaus among ale-swilling Germans, an activity that’s not to be missed on a trip to Swakopmund.
Our visit ended all too quickly and we started the journey back to Cape Town. After 900 kilometres to Ai-Ais, we hit tar at Rehoboth and ploughed along the incredibly straight and unremarkable B1 for what seemed like eternity. Just beyond Keetmanshoop, we turned onto a gravel road and headed for Fish River Canyon. Despite being mistakenly proclaimed the second biggest canyon in the world (it’s in the top 10 though), it’s still spectacular. It’s humbling to perch on the edge of the vast crevasse cut into the earth, as you consider your tiny place in the big universe.
As dusk turned the Huns Mountains purple, we joined hikers returning from the gruelling Fish River Canyon trail in the hot springs at Ai-Ais Restcamp.
We left Namibia the same way we came in, driving past quiver trees in dawn light to Vioolsdrif, our car filthy, memory cards full and bucket lists closer to completion. We felt like we’d been away for months: having driven so far, done so much, pondered the nature of the universe and drunk a lot of beer.
Weeks later, I still found grains of fine Namib sand in clothes and shoes – a welcome reminder in the midst of a busy city life that the vast landscapes, open skies and enormous desert silence of Namibia are still there, ready for the next visitors in need of an escape.
From Cape Town, take the N7 north to the border at Vioolsdrif. From Johannesburg, take the N14 and then the N10 to the border post at Nakop.
Buy a permit and take a fascinating guided tour of Kolmanskop with Ghost Town Tours, Lüderitz. Costs R55 a person. Tel +264-63-204-031, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Take a hot-air balloon flight over the desert with Namib Sky Balloon Safaris. Costs R3 959 a person and includes pick up and drop off from several hotels and campsites near Sossusvlei, and a Champagne breakfast. Tel +264-63-683-188, email email@example.com, www.namibsky.com.
Alter Action offers half-day sandboarding trips at R350 a person (includes transport, lunch and beer). The easier option is lie-down boarding at R250 a person. Tel +264-64-402-737, email firstname.lastname@example.org, www.alteraction.info.
Book ahead at Swakopmund Brauhaus for dinner (think hearty German favourites, such as eisbein) or enjoy Camelthorn and German beers at the bar. Tel +264- 64-402-214, email email@example.com, www.swakopmundbrauhaus.com.
In peak tourist season (July and August) you’ll need to book at least a week in advance for dinner at The Tug, Swakopmund’s well-known seafood restaurant. Tel +264-64-402-356, www.the-tug.com.
Jetty 1905, a restaurant at the end of the pier in Swakopmund, serves tapas, sushi and fantastic seafood, and has a decent wine selection. Go in the late afternoon to catch the sunset. Tel +264-64-405-664.
For baked treats, bread and light lunches on the road, stop at Solitaire, on the junction of the C14 and C24 between Sossusvlei and Swakopmund. Don’t forget to try the world-famous apple pie.
Kamieskroon Hotel is a great spot to stay if you’re driving to Namibia from Cape Town. It has simple, comfortable rooms with en suite bathrooms, a restaurant, a caravan park and five self-catering apartments. Camping is R80 a person, a double room in the hotel is R600 a night, and a four-sleeper apartment is R700 a night. Tel 027-672-1614, email firstname.lastname@example.org, www.kamieskroonhotel.com.
Desert Horse Campsite at Klein-Aus Vista was one of our favourite spots. Our secluded site under a camelthorn tree was peaceful and quiet. Each campsite has a tap and a braai, and the ablution blocks (with hot-water showers) are spotless. There’s a shop with camping supplies, beer and meat, as well as a restaurant. Camping is from R80 a person a night. Klein-Aus Vista also offers other accommodation options: starting at R135 a person at the Geisterschlucht Cabin (self-catering), which can accommodate 20 people. B&B is from R600 a person at the Desert Horse Inn, and R835 a person at Eagles Nest Chalets. Tel +264-63-258-116, email@example.com, www.klein-aus-vista.com.
For the best views in Lüderitz, stay at self-catering Lighthouse on Shark Island. It sleeps four people (there are two bedrooms and two bathrooms), has a basic kitchen and lounge with DStv. Costs from R220 a person. Shark Island offers other accommodation options too. Tel 021-422-3761, email firstname.lastname@example.org, www.nwr.com.na.
Sossus Oasis Campsite has a prime position outside the gate to Sossusvlei. It’s jacked up and each site has a shower with hot water, toilet, sink, plug point and braai area. A well-stocked petrol station shop has all the supplies you’ll need for camping including delicious apple strudel. Camping is R150 a person a night and R115 a site (max six people). Children from six to 12 pay R75 and children under six are free. Tel 021-930-4564, email email@example.com, www.sossusoasis.com/camp.htm.
Dunedin Star Guesthouse is close to the centre of Swakopmund, so it’s easy to walk to restaurants and attractions. Rooms are small and basic, but clean and comfortable. A double en suite room is R500 a night, including breakfast. Tel +264-64-407-105, email firstname.lastname@example.org, www.dunedinstar.com.
Ai-Ais Hotsprings Spa has a swimming pool, spa, hot springs, tennis courts, restaurant, shop and bar. The campsite is spread across the lawns with lovely views of the surrounding mountains. Camping is R125 a person (max eight people and two vehicles), B&B is R500 a person sharing and self-catering chalets are R800 a person sharing a night. Tel 021-422-3761, email email@example.com, www.nwr.com.na
Tok Tokkie Trails offers two-night, three-day walking trails in NamibRand Private Nature Reserve. You walk in a small group with a guide and bags are transported. All sleeping equipment, linen and towels are provided and meals are prepared at the camps. Rates for SADC residents start at R1 386 a person a night in low season (all months except July, August and September). All walking trails are two nights – you can’t book for one night. Tel +264-61-264-521, email firstname.lastname@example.org, www.toktokkietrails.com.
Chameleon Safaris offers three-day tours of Sossusvlei from R3 850 a person. Getaway readers will receive a 10 per cent discount. www.chameleonsafaris.com.
Alternatively, explore Namibia by train. JB Train Tours offers 10-day trips around Namibia for R18 500 a person. www.jbtours.co.za.
To book an awesome package to Namibia, visit Getaway Adventures. http://adventures.getaway.co.za.
The new Mercedes G 300 CDI Professional marks the return of a cross-country legend. Turning heads wherever we went, it’s a powerful and iconic vehicle. It drives smoothly and efficiently on tar and gravel roads, but really shows its strengths on rocky terrain and loose sand, which were no match for the high torque V6 diesel engine.
This vehicle has plenty of space for a family and all the holiday gear you can imagine, and ensures that you will feel safe and in control, no matter what the situation. Built for use by armies and emergency response agencies, the G 300 is practically indestructible, and manages to provide a fun and comfortable ride on top of that. From R773 990. www.mercedes.co.za.
Read Sarah’s blog on her road trip.
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