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Mary self-drives around Namibia

How would I describe mine and Julia’s recent road trip to Namibia? A lot of driving (we covered over 3600 kilometres in two weeks), a lot of exclaiming over the beautiful and ever changing scenery (we ran out of superlatives on day two), a lot of different experiences and a whole lot of laughing with the engaging Namibians we met.

This was my third visit to Namibia but a first for Julia, so it was interesting to see our different reactions. I wanted to see how much, if anything, had changed since my last trip whilst Julia was able to soak up every different aspect of the country.

As our trip was long and there is so much to describe, I will write about the first half of our adventure, covering Windhoek, the Namib Desert, Swakopmund and the Skeleton Coast.

For most people Windhoek is simply an overnight stay at the start of a longer itinerary but the city is not without its charms with galleries and craft markets to visit. Accommodation options are varied with small guest houses like Hilltop House and the Olive Grove, newer boutique hotels such as the Olive Exclusive, where we stayed, and Am Weinberg Boutique Hotel plus long established favourites such as the Heinitzburg. We spent a lovely evening at Joes Beerhouse, always a popular dining spot but we also heard good things about the Stellenbosch Wine Barr and Butchers Block, both of which offer a slightly more refined dining option.

The following morning we were up early to begin our road trip. If doesn’t take long once you have left Windhoek to appreciate the vastness of Namibia. Within 50kms or so the buildings give way to countryside and vehicle numbers significantly decrease. Whilst it is possible to fly around the country, for me driving in Namibia is as much a part of the appeal as are the landscapes and wildlife. Having your own vehicle gives you the luxury of being able to stop and soak up the vistas whenever you feel the need.

The landscapes changed dramatically as we drove south west towards the vast Namib Naukluft National Park, which encompasses the Namib Desert, considered to be the world’s oldest desert, and the Naukluft Mountains. Adjoining the national park is the beautiful Namib Rand Nature Reserve, 1800 sq. kms of vegetated sand dunes and gravel plains reaching towards rugged mountains in the distance. Activities on the reserve are varied and depending on where you stay (be that one of the Wolwedans Camps or at &Beyond’s Sossusvlei Desert Lodge), nature drives, walks, quad biking and horse riding will lead you into the heart of the reserve giving you the opportunity to view some of the resident wildlife.

Wolwedans is just a bit too far south to comfortably reach the famous sand dunes at Sossusvlei, probably the most iconic and certainly the most photographed of all of Namibia’s landscapes, so we drove north to Hoodia Lodge, our overnight stop and starting point for a superb day trip exploring the impressive dunes.

The network of dunes, many of them which are over 200 metres high, have been built up over millions of years and the famous orange colour, which is also in evidence at Wolwedans, is from the high iron content in the sands and the process of oxidisation. As a general rule, the higher the dune, the deeper the colour becomes.

The dunes at Sossusvlei are a photographer’s paradise and there is often a pressure to be one of the first through the gates for a mad dash to the prime locations for capturing the impressive shadows that are created as the sun rises over the highest points. Anyone chasing the early light should consider staying at Sossus Dune Lodge; not the most sophisticated property, but the only one located inside the park thus allowing access to the dunes before daybreak.

Hoodia Lodge take an altogether more relaxed approach. Whilst other cars rushed past us we were out of the car exploring some of the smaller dunes with our guide Enos who, after giving us a historical and geographical overview of the country, went off in search of beetles, lizards and scorpions and even spotted the endemic Dune Lark for us.

Once we reached the 4×4 car park we could see a stream of people heading off through the dunes to reach Dead Vlei, famous for its blackened dead trees which stand in stark contrast to the brilliantly white clay pan, the deep orange of the dunes and the intensely blue skies. However we didn’t follow the masses and in keeping with Hoodia’s ethos of taking a road less travelled, we struck out in a different direction, climbing higher and higher. I won’t lie, my heart did sink a bit as we reached one brow only to find a previously unseen dune behind it, but once we reached the top and walked precariously along the ridge (it was very windy!) the effort was forgotten. The views were spectacular as we looked toward the impressive and somewhat daunting Big Daddy Dune (at over 300 metres high, it is not for the faint hearted), but after a joyous run down the dune and we arrived in Dead Vlei! Lunch was a sophisticated affair, taken under shady trees close to Elim Dune and once we were replete it was time to move on and explore the impressive Sesriem Canyon. All in all a fantastic day trip and one that is exclusive to guests staying at Hoodia Lodge.

After our exciting day in the dunes I quickly visited the two lodges on the Kulala Concession where I left Julia before heading to Desert Mountain Outpost for an overnight stay. Tucked away in a private concession, the lodge has a stunning outlook over expansive plains with mountains in the distance. I arrived as dusk was approaching and the changing colours were breath taking; a warm yellow glow became intense orange and later a fiery red until finally the mountains slowly turned purple as the sun disappeared. As arrivals go, it was spectacular!

The drive from Sesriem to the coastal town of Swakopmund took us via Solitaire, an excellent stop for petrol, coffee and treats from McGregor’ Bakery, and through the spectacular Kuiseb Canyon before cutting across the Namib Naukluft Park until we finally caught sight of the South Atlantic Ocean.

We used to view Swakopmund as simply an overnight stop en route to Damaraland but nowadays it is a destination that easily warrants two if not three nights. We spent two nights in the town, firstly staying at the delightful Brigadoon Guesthouse then splitting up for our second night as Julia stayed at the traditional Hansa Hotel whilst I opted for the well positioned Swakopmund Guesthouse. On our full day we left Swakopmund shrouded in dense mist as we drove south with our guide from Turnstone Tours for an exhilarating day trip to Sandwich Harbour. As we drove along the beach the mist lifted and we were treated to a day of wildlife viewing, catching sight of flamingos, seals, jackals and pelicans, sea birds, of climbing the dunes to take advantage of the fabulous views of the natural harbour and being treated to a delicious homemade lunch. Our high octane return to town was a lot of fun as we were expertly driven through the dune belt, racing up dunes and plunging down the other side. The pulse definitely started racing as we went down one of the dunes backwards!

Swakopmund has definitely evolved as a destination since my last visit and has become a hub for activities such as kayaking, sand boarding and quad biking as well as offering the chance to discover some of the secrets of the desert.

Thus far we had been retracing the footsteps of my previous visit to Namibia and I had definitely fallen in love with the country and it’s peoples one again. I was itching however to reach our next destination, the Skeleton Coast National Park, as I had never been there before and was very excited to finally get there.

Driving north from Swakopmund is akin to entering an entirely new world. Tarmac once again gives way to gravel roads and once you have passed the turnout off to Uis (the route towards Damaraland) we saw few other vehicles on the road.

We followed the coastline before entering the Skeleton Coast National Park and continuing on to the tiny hamlet of Mowe Bay where we would be met by our guide from Shipwreck Lodge.

Entering and driving through the Skeleton Coast National Park was an extraordinary experience. The name of the park was originally attributed to the whale bones scattered along the coastline and later reflected the carcasses of shipwrecked vessels, and as you enter through the gate adorned by a skull and crossbones you get a sense of just how hostile an environment this could be. This was without doubt the most remote drive we undertook but also the most memorable.

As we journeyed north the landscape was constantly changing; at times we would see ocean waves breaking to our left contrasting with the pristine belt of sand dunes only a short distance to our right, at other times we drove through desolate lunar landscapes which would befit many a film set. The most surprising sight came as we drove across the salt flats (a stretch of land which is, if I am honest, pretty uninspiring) where the monotony was broken up with rows of small tables along the roadside laden with pink salt crystals, and in spite of being in the middle of nowhere, each table had a small glass jar acting as an honesty box for any purchases made. There is a strange quality of light on this coast; the combination of arid desert air and the cold Atlantic current results in a mist which seems to linger even when the sun was breaking though, sometimes resulting in a yellowish hue and at times making it difficult to differentiate between the sea, the land and the sky.

When completing paperwork at the park gate we had seen that only one other car had passed through the gates that day and as we made our way toward Mowe Bay the only other vehicle we saw belonged to diehard fishermen staying at one of the official camp sites. The roads which are made from packed salt are of reasonable quality but none the less we were grateful to have a robust car (we drove a Ford Ranger Double Cab) and would not suggest driving this road with anything smaller.

Having stopped at Terrace Bay, the final fuelling stop before Angola, we left the salt roads and bumped along sandy roads for the final 82 kms. to Mowe Bay, a small community and home to just a handful of conservationists and a park ranger. Here we were met by our guide from Shipwreck Lodge and headed off further into the park, already on the look out for the shy brown hyaena that we were both hoping to see.

Our two night stay at Shipwreck Lodge was the highlight of my trip. I have always seen a beauty in austere landscapes and am equally as happy in bright sunshine as I am to be shrouded in atmospheric mist so the ever changing weather and endless sand dunes appealed to me.

The lodge is strung out along the ridge of a small dune facing the distant ocean and in spite of its stark environment, it is very cosy. The hard working team take obvious enjoyment from working with each other and in doing their jobs well, creating a warm and happy atmosphere, a far cry from the welcome which met the survivors of shipwrecks along this cruel coastline for most of whom rescue was an impossibility.

How your days are spent at Shipwreck Lodge will be determined by the weather but a nature drive along the ephemeral Hoarusib River is likely to be an integral part of your stay.

We set off under heavy grey skies and were wrapped up in several layers of clothing. Driving over the dunes, we at first saw nothing but sand; miles and miles of undulating dunes unbroken by any vegetation or wildlife. However the further we drove inland, the more varied the landscape became as the dunes were broken up by rocky outcrops and the occasional hardy shrub. It is hard to believe that any wildlife can survive here but from time to time the river bubbles up from its subterranean course and results in bright green patches of grass and reeds providing welcome grazing. We saw oryx, impala and ostrich but hyaena are regularly seen and the luckiest guests get to see desert adapted elephants.

We stopped for lunch at the clay castles, an amazing network of formations built up over many years by clay being deposited and later eroded by the seasonal river. This was a great place to stretch our legs as we explored the ‘castles’ before heading back to the lodge in the mid-afternoon. For most of the day we had enjoyed brilliant sunshine but as we neared the coast it was as if someone has turned the lights off as the mist once again enveloped us.

Our afternoon activity could not have provided a greater contrast as we drove down to the beach for what we laughingly referred to as sunset drinks – but there was no sun! The ‘beach’ is a barren stretch of dark sand strewn with detritus from the ocean, remnants of whale bones and reminders of the coastline’s brutal past including the remains of a Ventura Bomber that had been sent to the aid of the passengers shipwrecked on the Dunedin Star (the account of this rescue is well worth looking up as it is an extraordinary story).

We may not have had a lovely African sunset but I loved being down on the foggy beach; it was desolate, eerie and almost mystical. All that was missing was seeing a brown hyaena emerge from the mist! It was also sobering and I think we all spared a thought for the poor souls who survived a shipwreck and thought they were safe, only to end up in such an inhospitable environment.

I was sad to leave the Skeleton Coast but finally it was time to head back to Mowe Bay to collect our car and depart to Damaraland from where Julia will take up our story. The Skeleton Coast did have one last highlight for us; en route to Mowe Bay, our grinning guide stopped suddenly and pointed ahead. It was far away and tucked against a boulder, but there, at last, was a brown hyaena!

Returning to Namibia was such positive experience for me and I have come home with a renewed passion for a destination which offers such magnificent diversity in terms of the landscape, the accommodation styles and the activities.

There are untold adventures waiting for you in Namibia!

Mary stayed at: The Olive Exclusive, Hoodia Desert Lodge, Desert Mountain Outpost, Brigadoon Guesthouse, Swakopmund Guesthouse, Shipwreck Lodge, Mowani Mountain Camp, Mushara Lodge, Ongava Tented Camp, Mobile Camping Kaokoland (Namibia Tracks and Trails), Damaraland Camp, and Okonjima Plains Camp

Mary visited: Am Weinberg Boutique Hotel, Hotel Heinitzburg, Olive Grove, Hilltop Guesthouse, Wolwedans Dune Camp, Wolwedans Dune Lodge, A Little Sossus Lodge, Desert Homestead Lodge, Sossus Dune Lodge, Little Kulala, Kulala Desert Lodge, Desert Hills Lodge, Cornerstone Guesthouse, Villa Margherita, The Delight, The Strand Hotel, The Hansa Hotel, Camp Kipwe, Malansrus Tented Camp, Mushara Bush Camp, Mushara Outpost, Namutoni Rest Camp, Okaukuejo Rest Camp, Ongava Lodge, Andersson’s at Ongava, Khowarib Lodge, Hoanib Valley Camp, Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp, Okahirongo Elephant Lodge, Doro Nawas Camp, Okonjima Bush Camp