Namibia, with its well graded roads, friendly people and stunning scenery has to be one of nicest countries in Africa to explore by car.
It’s a harsh place, that’s for sure, what with all its deathly deserts and dryness; but for those who can cope with dust and the heat, Namibia’s rewards can be more than worthwhile.
Simply put; it’s beautiful, barren and big.
With a population of just 2 million people in a landscape of some 824292 square kilometers (that’s under 3 people per km2) its very unlikely that you will ever find yourself seething in traffic, and what’s more, most of the roads (the main ones at least) are rather well looked after.
Driving there can be a joy.
Recently I joined a convoy tour (led by Bhejane 4×4 adventures) which started in the coastal desert town of Swakopmund and ended up in the wildlife paradise of Etosha National Park in the north.
En route, our nine car motorcade visited the aptly named skeleton coast; the Brandberg Massif; the beautiful Palmwag conservancy and the fascinating bushman engravings of Twyfelfontein.
We traveled through deserts and along empty beaches and we searched rolling hills covered in golden grasses for the hope of a glimpse of a desert elephant or rhino.
Most of all though, or should I say ‘above all else’ we witnessed beautiful landscapes beyond compare, and wildlife sightings beyond expectations.
The first day of the tour was a meet and greet sort of thing at the Alte brucke camp site next to the beach at Swakopmund. It was a typically foggy day, and cold and clammy too, but most of the 18 clients were in an upbeat mood; their enthusiasm not the least bit dampened by the semi-British weather.
Swakopmund, being an enclave town surrounded by desert on three sides and the Atlantic on the forth, has in recent years become an adventure activity capital of sorts. Its where one can go ‘test’ oneself against the desert, be it on 2 or 4 wheels, on foot, or as I discovered; on a shiny sheet of laminated cardboard.
It was quite good fun hurtling down the side of a dune at break neck speed, and I particularly enjoyed the part when I became momentarily air bound before landing on my face.
Sand boarding , as it is called, is a very popular activity in Swakopmund.
The pervasive pea soup mist; a by-product of cold sea air mixing with hot desert air, is a common occurrence along Namibia’s coast, so common in fact that 2 out of three days are foggy. Without it though, most life forms (plants, reptiles, insects and possibly humans too) would never be able to survive in such an arid dry environment.
“It can be a bit depressing at times” one Swakopmund resident put it to me “But without these mists, we white Namibians would simply burst into flames”
The following day after breakfast we all boarded our vehicles and headed north through the fog along the gravel C34 and into the newly proclaimed Dorob National Park; a pale colored gravel plain which, until recently, went by the name of the West Coast Recreation Area.
On first appraisal the plane appears to be empty and dead, but when one gets out of the car and takes a closer look, it becomes quite apparent that the surface is literally teaming with life.
We continued through this hazy and somewhat surreal moonscape for a further 115kms until reaching the Cape Cross seal colony where we alighted from our vehicles in order to fully appreciate the sensory overload that 26000 argumentative and aromatic seals can bring about.
My nostrils flared, my eyes watered, and my head went light and dizzy, but after a while, I became accustomed to the sights, sounds and, perhaps most importantly, the smells of the place, and that’s when I really started to enjoy myself.
Footprints in the sand attested to the frequent presence of brown hyena and jackal at the colony, but alas there were none around on the morning of our visit.
I would have loved to have seen one and although I requested that we stay a while longer “just in case” the rest of the group had already retired to their cars, hands clasped tightly over mouths.
Other than the obvious attraction of the seal colony, the Cape Cross site is also famous for being home to an ancient stone crucifix which was originally erected in 1486 by Diogo Cao; a Portuguese explorer from Lisbon.
His mission was to forge a sea route around Africa but alas Diogo died at Cape Cross and henceforth became known as the Skeleton Coast’s first seafaring victim. There of course, would be many more to come.
No one actually knows how or why Diogo expired on the Skeleton Coast. Some speculate he ate a dodgy seal and died of dysentery. Others say he was overwhelmed by the smell.
After visiting Cape Cross, we backtracked for 40 kms and traveled some 100km inland on the C35 road, first stopping for lunch next to a protected lichen field, and then continuing on to refuel at the sleepy, hot and dusty little town of Uis.
Our destination for that day was the white lady camp on the dry Tsiseb river bed in Damaraland; a place of shady acacia trees, friendly hornbills and the occasional elephant herd.
Sadly, there were no eles present during our two night stay there, but these enigmatic creatures often make an appearance to dig for water along the river’s course.
Rising above the camp like an enormous misplaced meteor stands the Brandberg Massif; a humongous bare rock mountain which is home to the famous white lady; a remarkably intricate bushman cave painting.
The following day, we all took a hike to the white lady site some 2.5 kilometers up a steep sided valley where orange headed agama lizards scuttled from rock to rock.
Our guide told us that in days gone by, dozens of Bushman clans resided in the shadow of Brandberg because there was always water at its base and always shade within its many folded valleys. Sadly though, all those people are long since gone; but evidence of their customs has been left behind in the form of some 43000 rock paintings.
The White Lady painting was once believed to represent a Phoenician or Greek woman and was taken as evidence that this ancient Middle Eastern/ European culture was once influential in prehistoric sub Saharan Africa long before Christ walked the earth.
Subsequent experts have now disproved this theory but despite the lady being ‘downgraded’ from a possible Phoenician Queen to an ash covered shamanic bushman (with an obvious penis) tourists still flock to come and see it..
That evening after a sweltering afternoon spent at the campsite’s gratefully appreciated swimming pool we headed out for a drive along two spoor tracks into the rolling planes and foothills of the Brandberg.
Golden grasses covered everything in a soft focus carpet, and it was there beneath the shadow of Brandberg’s 2000 meter cliffs that we erected our camp chairs and enjoyed a cold beer or two as the sun slowly set turning everything red.
As is often the case in Namibia, we had the whole place to ourselves.
After two nights spent in the charming Tsiseb campsite we departed Brandberg and backtracked to Uis after which we turned west onto the gravel D2342 passing huge granite koppies and endless vistas of golden grasses en route towards the coast again.
Our 137km journey back to the sea was an interesting one, principally because the changes in geology and vegetation along the way were really quite profound.
At first there were grasses and trees and the occasional stream (and even some animals too) but as we drew nearer to the sea all but the hardiest lifeforms (Welwitchia plants and springbok) all but disappeared.
Once again it looked as if we were driving on the moon. A foggy moon at that.
Back on the C35 coastal road we veered northwards through a waterless lifeless yet serenely beautiful landscape of flat ash coloured plains. To our left a gray sea crashed upon empty beaches whilst to the right, mirage lakes twinkled as if full of fresh water.
I wondered at how many shipwrecked souls had followed these empty illusions to their deaths. Quite a few I suppose.
The gates to the Skeleton Coast National Park, which have been fashioned into two giant skull and crossbones, leave you with little doubt that you are entering a place of doom.
I imagine similar gates embellishing hell’s entrance, but I’ll have to confirm that with you when eventually I get there.
Our first stop off on our journey through “Hell on sea” was a picturesque little shipwreck- an insurance scam or a genuine incident, who can tell; but it certainly looked forlorn sitting there, all alone, on the wet sands.
More than 100 recorded ships have run aground off Namibia’s treacherous and often foggy waters, and in the old days before cell phones, GPS and distress beacons, stranded survivors were inherently doomed to die of thirst.
Legends tell of stranded sailors finding diamonds and amethyst geodes lying around on the surface of the beach, but none of them got rich from these finds. After all, what good are gemstones to the walking dead?
A further 51kms from the entrance gate we pulled off to look at the decaying hulk of a failed diamond mining rig; its struts and platforms rusted to dust, its buckled legs surrounded by the bones of past hyena meals.
Many people have come to Namibia’s coastal deserts in search of wealth and fortune. Few of them succeeded.
We then traveled for an additional 45kms along the coast before heading east on the C39, firstly alongside soft and curvaceous dunes and then through blood red tabletop mountains and eventually back into the golden grasses that so typify inland Namibia.
It was an additional 130kms of gravel travel through wonderful scenery (along the C43 and C45 roads) before eventually we reached the Palmwag conservancy; a private reserve where desert adapted black rhinos are doing rather well (despite this year’s rise in poaching incidents)
The 45000 hectare reserve (named after the palm trees that grow around the lodge and campsite) is a very special place indeed and is set amongst hills and planes which are coated in swaying grasses.
Giant hemispherical shaped euphorbia plants dot the landscape like huge green mushrooms whilst strange swollen bottle trees grow from the flanks of rocky mountains.
We thoroughly explored the area the following morning and although the two spoor tracks which crisscross the reserve are not technical by nature, they are still slow and rocky enough to warrant a sturdy high clearance vehicle.
That morning we saw lions and the rare Hartman’s zebra as well as hyena and giraffe before the stifling heat forced us back to the lodge bar and swimming pool.
As at Brandberg, the evening was spent game viewing in glorious light followed by sundowners on a beautiful vantage point that gave us a superb view of the surrounding scenery.
The next day was spent visiting a series of geological marvels, the first of which was a place called Twyfelfontein where ancient and unique busman rock carvings can be seen.
The 98km drive (C43 to C39 to D2612 to D3214) was a marvel, what with all the superb mountains and astonishingly beautiful valleys through which we traversed, and what’s more, we saw rhino dung and a big herd of elephants right next to the road.
There are few places left where one can see wildlife of this nature outside of a reserve, and I am pretty sure that my grandchildren, when they grow up, will not be as fortunate.
Twyfelfontein (doubtful spring) was once the home to a farmer named David Levine. We saw his tiny mud brick shack in which he lived between 1946 and 1964 before the ‘doubtful spring’ dried up.
Nowadays the place has become famous for its 2400+ bushman engravings which depict lions, rhinos, elephants, giraffe, ostriches, gemsbok and even a penguin and a whale despite being some 100kms from the sea.
Whilst not quite on par with Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, the Twyfelfontein engravings are nonetheless rather nice.
A hop and a skip away was the unfathomably famous burnt mountain which looks for all the world like a large and exceedingly drab pile of rubble.
The guide books I read all go into raptures over the place and describe it as a multi coloured marvel. Perhaps one needs to visit during the slanting light of early morn or dusk, but during midday (which is when we arrived) it looks little more than a disused mine quarry.
Directly opposite were the organ pipes; a sort of kloof which is lined with rocky columns and then 29kms further down the C39 road we visited a site of petrified trees.
This was very interesting and comprised of a series of ancient solidified tree trunks that apparently were washed down and buried by a Glacier some 280 million years ago.
After a third night spent at the Palmwag campsite we spent the whole day driving 330kms along a mixture of both gravel and tar roads to the Anderson Gate in the southern extremities of Etosha National Park.
The scenery along the way was a blend of drab Kalahari like mopani woodland, magnificent mountains and the occasional little town (Such as Outjo where we stocked up on biltong and beer)
When one travels almost anywhere in Africa, one invariably encounters village after village bustling with folk. kids will line the side of the road begging for sweets but not so in Namibia. Outside of the towns we saw nobody; nobody whatsoever.
Okaukuejo camp, our home for the next two nights in Etosha National Park was quite a contrast to the rest of the country. It was crowded and packed and full of the hustle and bustle of tourists on Safari.
Its quite a large and plush affair what with its fine dining restaurant, nice accommodation, aircon bar, swimming pool and shops but the camping facilities suck.
With very few ablutions and almost no shade whatsoever, one can easily derive the impression that the Park’s authorities do not value or respect campers at all.
On the plus side though, the camp is a fun place, what with all its giant sociable weaver nests, bold ground squirrels and friendly (possibly rabid) jackals.
The jewel in the crown though is its floodlit waterhole. Its absolutely awesome.
That evening, I sat myself down on one of the benches overlooking the water and watched as one of the most enthralling wildlife stage shows got underway.
Jackals began to sing their plaintive songs as the sun disappeared but their voices were soon drowned out by the nearby roaring of lions.
I absolutely love that sound. Don’t you?
People sat in hushed reverence as elephants began to saunter out of the surrounding darkness. They were soon joined by hesitant giraffe, zebra and several black rhinos who huffed and puffed and mock charged each other.
Lions were visible as slinking shadows on the edges of the light.
It was beautiful and I stayed there for many an hour until eventually, tiredness drove me back to my tent.
On the following morning I was out the front gate as soon as it opened at 7 with the hopes of finding a lively waterhole to stake out with my camera.
I didn’t have far to go before I got what I was looking for. Just 9kms from the camp the Nebrowni waterhole was a seething mass of wildlife.
Hundreds upon hundreds of Zebras, Gemsbok and springbok were crowded on an open plane next to what amounted to a dirty pond made all the more muddier by a big bull elephant who was splashing around in it like a child at the seaside.
He used his trunk to pick up white muck from beneath the surface and then turned it on himself until he was covered from head to foot.
When finished, he stood off to the side like a great white statue until the mud had dried into a crisp and crunchy coating. That’s when a lion turned up and chased away the antelope, but for his troubles, he got trumpeted at by the big bull who sent him packing like a naughty little kitten.
It was a magical scene which I was reluctant to leave but eventually the midmorning heat got too much and so I headed back to camp for a cold coke and a swim in the pool.
The evening was spent enraptured once again by the activities of the floodlit waterhole.
The following morning our group arose early and headed, ever so slowly, towards Halali Camp, some 75 kilometers further to the east. Along the way we spotted Lions, elephants black faced impala and the usual assortment of big game. The highlight however was a fantastic cheetah sighting.
The elegant spotted cat (who had been hiding in a grassy plain) sprang at an unsuspecting springbok and chased him within meters of my parked car. The bokkie got away, but it was nonetheless a thrilling thing to see. I got a photo of it too…
Halali, which is more or less in the middle of the park, is a much, much nicer place to pitch a tent than Okaukuejo. For one thing, there is lots of shade but unfortunately the waterhole is not nearly as exciting.
That’s not to say its boring though. Far from it in fact. Within an hour of sitting there I saw a cavalcade of zebras walking by and a pair of black rhinos having a drink.
The following day, and our last full day in Etosha, I decided to go visit the pan from which the park derives its name.
At 4730 square kilometers, its an absolutely massive thing to behold; all white and flat and empty and glaring as if its made of snow.
Distant herds of wildebeest and gemsbok mingled with ostriches out on the windswept emptiness, their legs stretched into the illusion of wavering stilts by an intense heat haze.
I drove my vehicle out onto the Etosha lookout; a very muddy road that ventures forth onto the pan for about kilometer; and there I marveled at how diverse and amazing this place truly is.
On the horizon I could see a line of blue water where recent and rare rains had inundated the middle of the pan. Flamingoes and pelicans were amassed there in their thousands.
Seagulls whirled and cormorants sailed overhead noisily.
I felt as if I were at the sea rather than being in an arid big five bush veldt park nearly 400 kilometers from the coast.
Namibia never fails to surprise me no matter how often I go there.
It always has been one of my favorites, and after this recent trip, its likely to stay that way for quite some time to come.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO. NAMIBIA Bhejane 4×4
Best Time to Go
Although I would love to see Etosha (and the rest of Namibia) in the wet season (Late November to March) you are much better off traveling when the roads are dry.
What’s more, waterholes become fantastic focal points for game viewing during the dry season (April to October)
Garmin GPS units can mean the difference between life and death and possible divorce out there in the desert.
www.tracks4africa.com produce some excellent paper as well as GPS maps